O'Gara desperate to arrest Munster decline
Ireland out-half knows lessons must be learnt quickly to help Reds find way back to summit
Published 04/05/2011 | 05:00
In the week of American celebration over Osama bin Laden's demise, the words of Colin Powell, former chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, seem particularly pertinent: "There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure."
That is a mantra Munster have applied productively over the years. The near-misses and hard-luck stories of the early 2000s were channelled into double European success in 2006 and 2008, but the past two seasons have seen a steady trickle of decline to rot away at the foundations of what was once Irish rugby's most formidable fortress.
Two semi-final defeats last season were followed by a heretofore 'unthinkable' January pool exit in the Heineken Cup and, last weekend, repechage rejection as Munster's semi-final woes continued in the Challenge Cup.
The fact it came at Thomond Park renders the defeat all the more dispiriting. Leicester won there in 2007, but though that stung, the fact that Munster were already guaranteed a quarter-final spot may have taken the edge off on that occasion.
Perhaps their designated role as Leinster's warm-up act proved psychologically erosive against Harlequins but the fact remains that this was Munster chasing silverware in front of their fans and they flopped. The flaccid nature of the performance was particularly unsettling and yesterday in Limerick Munster's main men tried to get their heads around what had happened and what was the best way forward.
The damning statistic that kept cropping up was that of 15 first-phase possessions, the ball was turned over on 14 occasions. The upshot was that there was no platform to work off and Quins, an industrious side but one Munster would have disposed of comfortably not so long ago, were allowed to gain a foothold and build their confidence.
"They are obviously a good team and I am not taking away from them for one minute, but you would expect us firing on all cylinders to beat Harlequins," said out-half Ronan O'Gara. "But expecting and doing are two different things, and we didn't do it.
"We struggled in all areas, our execution was poor, and at this level small margins make a big difference. We didn't give ourselves a chance."
His coach Tony McGahan was equally forthright. "We didn't give ourselves any sort of platform, or ability to play any sort of game," said McGahan.
"When you're playing at home, you want to make sure that you're in the game but when you turn over ball from passing, from a set-piece perspective, from being outworked at the breakdown through sheer weight of numbers and general enthusiasm, you don't give yourself a platform."
The obvious conclusion looking to the rest of the season (where Munster will look to turn their excellent Magners League campaign into silverware) and further down the line is to sort out the set-pieces.
As primary sources of possession, a solid scrum and lineout are pre-requisites for any productive play. South African tight-head BJ Botha decamps to Munster next season and carries the hopes of a province on his well-worn shoulders, while Munster have the personnel and the persistence to be a lineout force once they straighten out their organisation.
McGahan agreed that set-piece security was a priority moving onwards, but has faith in Munster's ability to gain consistency form their first-phase possession.
"Set-pieces are a priority, without a doubt," said McGahan. "If you look where the finals have been won in this last Heineken Cup campaign, the pre-requisites of those certainly haven't changed. The first thing is to have a reliable set-piece on your own ball, the second part of that is that you need to be able to put pressure on the opposition.
"Sides like Leinster and Northampton do that particularly well. There isn't a moment's rest on the opposition's ball. Thirdly is the contact area. You stop that gain-line with your defence and get a little bit of go-forward to produce some ball to be able to play off the back. They are the key areas and they haven't changed.
"These problems have been identified for a while. We've had some excellent days. The Leinster game three weeks ago, we were 100pc on the scrum, lineout and restart ball, which is a good stat. We have the ability to play but the consistency of being able to deliver in a big game, we've fallen short in the semi-final period over the last three years."
Leinster and Ulster may be earning all the underage plaudits but, despite falling behind to a degree at underage level, McGahan and O'Gara both agreed that there is plenty of young talent coming through in Munster.
"It most definitely is," said O'Gara. "There's an awful lot of the senior players that were young fellas once upon a time and they've had bad days before and if the right lessons were taken out of last weekend by the younger players it will accelerate their development hugely. But we do need fellas coming in and not looking just to get on the team, but coming in and trying to win European Cups. I think the ambition is huge and that's something the team needs.
"Keith Earls is very young and he's been on a Lions tour and he's a permanent fixture on the team so if you're good enough you'll get picked and you'll get plenty of opportunity," added O'Gara.
"I don't think we have ever shied away from the fact that, from schools into that period of underage rugby, is an area where we need to improve," said McGahan. "I don't think we do that well enough -- I'm not going to shy away from that question.
"Our Academy is certainly up. Our 'A' programme and the results we've had in the British & Irish Cup has been evidence of the players we have," added the coach.
"You have seen the young players that we have coming through and I think there are some real positives there, but certainly some areas need to be addressed. We are putting things in place to deal with them. It's not just an overnight fix with a band aid."
Just as after Toulon in January, Munster need an adrenalin shot -- not great timing for Connacht who roll into Limerick on Friday. The Magners League title now assumes massive importance but there is a collective will, bordering on frenzy, to get things back on track.
"Harlequins was a very poor day," said O'Gara. "But the great thing about sport, and rugby and the Munster team, is you get another opportunity."
With Leinster setting the bar high, the road back to the summit of Irish rugby will not be an easy one for Munster. But for Munster fans looking for positives, the attitude and application look to be in place -- sort out the set-pieces, work on the systems to bring young talent through and they are not dodging the issues, but rather fronting up to disappointment.
Preparation, hard work and learning from failure -- the Powell Plan is the right way forward.