Sunday 11 December 2016

Tony Ward: Anthony Foley will target breakdown battle to set winning tempo

Published 30/05/2015 | 02:30

Munster's Ian Keatley during squad training
Munster's Ian Keatley during squad training
Munster head coach Anthony Foley

If it's true what they say about learning more in defeat than victory then Munster beware.

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The most exciting team over the course of last year's marathon campaign didn't just finish second to defending champions Leinster in the 2014 RDS final but trailed Matt O'Connor's side by a distance.

The final 22-point difference (34-12) was fully reflective of the respective performances on the day as Team Leinster did the retiring Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen proud.

It was the most appropriate way of saying thank you. Glasgow prop Gordon Reid hasn't been slow in recalling the emotion of the D4 venue that day and the chastening effect that comprehensive defeat had on this still-developing Scottish district.

Perhaps he articulated it best when saying: "You draw on the memory of that final and other painful experiences along the way". Losing on the big day doesn't provide any God-given right to win next time round - check Clermont Auvergne on the count - but it does provide a reservoir of emotion on which to draw. The challenge is in keeping that raw emotion in check.

The trick clearly is in playing the opposition not the occasion and that in a sense is the biggest challenge facing both sides today. "Last year I wanted to take it all in so I was burnt out by kick-off," admits Reid with stoic honesty.

Mission

For Munster, it is the perfect opportunity to say 'go raibh míle maith agat' to Paul O'Connell in the best possible way, while for Glasgow the mission will be along similar lines in appreciation of Ali Kellock. Kellock, a native Glaswegian, is to the Warriors what O'Connell is to Limerick and Munster.

And while it wasn't choreographed this way, maybe it's no bad thing that the emotion of the occasion for two undeniable giants - physical and metaphorical - is to be shared. They will in a sense cancel each other out. For both coaches, however, the challenge is a lot more complex than that.

Gregor Townsend may have been something of a free spirit in his playing days but now as highly composed head coach, he has managed to marry the romantic with the pragmatic.

Mind you, in Fijian duo Niko Matawalu and Leone Nakarawa he has two for whom offloading comes so naturally. Little wonder the Warriors happen to be the highest offloading, lowest kicking, highest try-scoring team from their own half.

Not surprisingly, Anthony Foley (a little more route-one than Townsend when in his playing pomp) has identified the Scottish South Sea Islanders as the key cogs to the offloading game so effective in getting them this far.

Finn Russell and Peter Horne have added to the conundrum in a more measured way but with Stuart Hogg capable of turning up and striking from anywhere, the Warriors' modus operandi is multi-faceted.

The Foley objective will be simple and straightforward: win the battle of the breakdown, set CJ Stander loose and with that gain-line-breaking momentum, establish the tempo and pace to suit the more down-to-earth Munster traits.

As ever, the onus will fall on the half-backs, in this instance Duncan Williams and Ian Keatley. Williams did well when coming on for Conor Murray against the Ospreys but the potential consequences of the loss of Murray needs little elaboration.

For Keatley, it is make or break. It is not stretching it to suggest that if O'Connell is to have the send-off he craves then the Munster playmaker is the main man.

Although outshone by Paddy Jackson in general play, he had a good outing at the Kingspan a fortnight ago. Psychologically, that should put his mind at ease after the goal-kicking glitch in Thomond on Saturday last.

It is imperative the Munster No 10 plays with confidence. Beyond that, it is difficult to see Keith Earls and/or Simon Zebo getting too many counter-attacking possibilities, thereby making every point-scoring opportunity precious.

The Keatley factor cannot be overstated, but Peter O'Mahony's loss through injury is a massive blow for Anthony Foley.

We all know what a win would mean for Munster but for Glasgow, to borrow from George Hamilton, a nation holds its breath. If the Warriors could take a long-overdue trophy, what a boost it would provide for Scottish rugby.

However riveting has been their style in recent years the bottom line is a lack of silverware in the locker. That means the pressure is on Glasgow more than Munster. It will be fascinating to see how the crowd - set to be largely neutral - goes. I suspect it could be on the Scottish side.

Needless to say, my heart wants Munster to do it... and yet. I really like the way Townsend and the Warriors go about their business but Munster are well capable of calling a halt to their free-running, offloading gallop.

It is a fascinating contest of contrasting styles and another set to go to the wire. It should be a thriller with the venue adding enormously to the occasion.

I'm tempted to say I'll go with the heart but, if Glasgow manage to pull this one off by way of their customary style, we can handle that too. Take Munster to play well but (with minimal conviction) Glasgow to shade it.

On a separate issue, as the season draws to a close, Rule 3.7 of the Champions Cup (EPCR) has again been brought to my attention.

What's that you might ask? Rule 3.7 in the 2014/'15 Key Rules under the section Eligibility of Players decrees that "Each club is permitted a maximum of two 'non European players' in each match squad".

Needless to say, the term 'non-European' is not defined but I think it reasonable to assume we are talking South African, Antipodean, American, Pacific Islanders, Argentinians that type of thing.

Stipulation

In saying that maybe there's a hidden stipulation that players become 'European' after two years, maybe two months, maybe two days, who knows?

Forgive my in-built cynicism, but in the Toulon-Leinster semi-final 'our' side cheated with three non-Europeans in Ben Te'o, Jimmy Gopperth and Zane Kirchner.

While it might be hard to believe, so too did Toulon. The three-time champions included Matt Giteau, Bryan Habana, Carl Hayman, Bakkies Botha, Ali Williams, Juan Smith, Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Chris Masoe, Levan Chilachava, Drew Mitchell, Rudi Wulf and Michael Classens.

Now I was never strong at maths in school but by my calculation that's nine 'non-European' players above the stated quota, I repeat, a maximum of two 'non-European' players".

I have little doubt a trawl down the various squads, and not just in the Top 14, will show rule 3.7 being taken to the cleaners. Indeed this very week at Montpellier, where former World Cup-winning Springbok coach Jake White is calling the shots, the club with the reputation for one of the best academies in France has announced the arrival of 11 new players including six South Africans and two Australians.

Whoever said rules were made to be broken got it in one with the French national team the biggest loser.

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