Monday 26 June 2017

Tony Ward: Current back-row worthy heirs to hallowed trinity of the glory days

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Let's begin with the absolute positive: this was the Munster of old in Europe. The two-time winners could hardly have honoured their fallen coach in a more fitting manner.

In every way, this was Munster on a French field just as Axel would have wanted it.

I was tempted to add 'in the white heat of battle', but that it was most definitely not. And therein lies the flip side to what was, as expected, an emotionally charged occasion, at least in the build-up.

Racing were abysmal and if the players involved - many of them fringe men for the French champions - are not embarrassed by this performance, then it's time for them to hit the road.

Ronan O'Gara was as frank as ever when he admitted that Racing's preparation was inadequate. While he touched on the physical aspect (through fitness), what he didn't have to spell out was the mental element; the individual and collective psyche so obviously lacking as he said "just 15 minutes in and the result was already clear".

Racing had won 24 of their previous 26 home games, yet by half-time on Saturday they were trailing by 25 points, with the train long gone from the station in terms of a contest.

Of course you can only put away the opposition as it is presented, and Munster's second-half objective of securing the fourth try was achieved, but you can be sure the post-match analysis ahead of Scotstoun will be much more hard-hitting.

Put it this way: the dignified respect shown by the Racing 92 club, by its management and by its passionate supporters wasn't at all reflected in the performance of its players.

Munster can reflect on a difficult emotional job clinically done, with the dignified class that has been the hallmark of the province, on and off the field, since Anthony Foley's premature passing.

Save for the occasional high, speculative kick, Munster were in cruise control, laying down that intensive marker early and never deviating.

We may question individual or unit performances from time to time, but one thing you could never doubt under Foley and/or Rassie Erasmus is the work ethic.

The appetite for industry is what makes Munster tick and why they are the standard bearers of the European game and probably the most respected rugby entity the length and breadth of the continent.

They may not produce the most free-flowing rugby, but you can never fault their commitment to the cause - and that cause has grown even stronger in Axel's passing.

And however heartless Racing were, Munster to a man were awesome.

There were so many candidates for the CJ Stander Man of the Match award, with the No. 8 himself, of course, taking centre stage. Donnacha Ryan had a massive game. His performance alone highlighted the vast gulf in attitude between the teams.

There were so many others, too. Buoyed by his Ireland experience during the November series, Billy Holland is now a vital lynchpin, yet God only knows how Erasmus is going to leave out a fit-again Jean Kleyn.

And what of Peter O'Mahony? He is back to where he was prior to his heart-breaking World Cup injury. As an out-and-out No. 6, when he is at the top of his game there is none better. He is certainly back in the mix for a place in the hotly contested back-row to face Scotland in the Six Nations opener at Murrayfield.

Because if Erasmus has selection headaches, then what of Joe Schmidt?

The Bod, Rog and Paulie generation has moved on, but the replacement crop is ready.

Tommy O'Donnell matched his back-row colleagues O'Mahony and Stander in Paris. The Tipperary native has slipped off the Ireland radar for whatever reasons, but here, irrespective of the limp opposition, was a reminder to Schmidt and the Ireland management that he hasn't gone away. Anything but on this evidence.

It is important to keep things in perspective, but certainly the back-row of O'Mahony, O'Donnell and Stander draws comparison with the hallowed Alan Quinlan/David Wallace/Foley combination of old. Back then there was Denis Leamy too, while it is the emerging Jack O'Donoghue piling on the pressure on all three now.

O'Donoghue is to Munster rugby what Jack Conan is to Leinster. Keep an eye on these two progressive flankers.

What strikes me most about this team is the number of leaders now emerging. It has always been a hallmark of the Munster game - men who consistently deliver in the face of adversity.

O'Mahony, Ryan, Holland, Stander and Conor Murray would be the most obvious, but Jaco Taute and Simon Zebo (in a different sort of way) have that innate quality that impacts on others.

Tyler Bleyendaal and the Scannell brothers are heading in that direction as well.

Make no mistake, this renewed European challenge from Munster is real.

Irish Independent

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