Return to core values
McGahan’s men can re-establish confidence with back-to-basics gameplan
Published 22/01/2011 | 05:00
THAT was the week that was. Five days of bitter recrimination, accusation, regret, outrage, despair and calls for change, but enough about politics ...
The fortunes of Munster rugby carry far less gravity than the machinations of Dail Eireann, but, for those with a vested interest in the Irish game, the province's response to their Heineken Cup exit carries extreme significance.
It is a time for some positive thinking down south; there is a need for swift re-affirmation of Munster's core values and that starts this afternoon against London Irish.
The calls for change in the management make-up, namely the roles of forwards and backs coach, have been justified based on the evidence to hand, but there has been almost universal agreement that Tony McGahan is the right man to lead the revival.
However, the Australian needs to locate a definitive path for his team, an approach that plays to Munster's strengths and acknowledges and caters for the areas where they are less proficient.
The prerogative now is to get into the Challenge Cup, but to do so with a clarity of focus and style of play that will bring the side forward, incorporating the development of fresh talent.
There were calls to throw a raft of younger players into the side for today's encounter, but those opportunities will arrive in the Magners League over the next few months, the priority today is to make sure London Irish are put away and that requires a seam of experience running through the team.
Thus, there were no dramatic inclusions by McGahan this week. When Donncha O'Callaghan paid the price for his lapse of discipline in Toulon, there was a wave of support for Ian Nagle to pack down in the second-row next to Paul O'Connell, but that would have been harsh on Mick O'Driscoll who has been having an excellent season and Nagle will get his opportunities.
James Coughlan, along with David Wallace, was one of the better performers in the pack last weekend, but drops out for Niall Ronan who should help ensure a more fluid style, while Denis Leamy -- who was completely outshone by the superb Joe van Niekerk on Sunday -- needs a big game.
Leamy is the same build as Sean O'Brien and, arguably, carries the greater power. If he concentrates on hitting the ball from depth and steers clear of the nark and niggle that goes on in any rugby match, the Cashel man could be the same source of go-forward for Munster that O'Brien is for Leinster.
John Hayes holds on to the tight-head jersey which is another blow for Tony Buckley after he failed to make Ireland's Six Nations squad this week.
Hayes' 37 years are sitting heavily on his shoulders, while Buckley needs to re-announce himself quickly to keep in Declan Kidney's World Cup plans, but whoever starts today, the challenge of containing the scrum threat of Alex Corbisiero and Faan Rautenbach is the same.
Tomas O'Leary's return at scrum-half gives the Dolphin man the chance to remind everyone why he was picked in the initial Lions party to tour South Africa last year until injury intervened. Peter Stringer is ahead of him in the Ireland pecking order and is going well, but O'Leary is a class act with a point to prove and would be worth a few bob for a man-of-the-match award this afternoon.
Injuries to Paul Warwick and Sam Tuitupou forced a back-line reshuffle which has worked out quite well as it allows Johne Murphy greater opportunity to get his hands on the ball and do damage from full-back and Denis Hurley the chance to put his physique and determination to good use on the wide left. Finally the 6-2 split on the subs has been sensibly shelved and Coughlan, Stringer and Scott Deasy should get a chance to make a decent impact also
Not the most radical selection by any means, but a team that is more than capable of getting the job done and in a style that will instil confidence for the future.
The tactics were completely off-beam in the Stade Felix Mayol, when Munster's back-line moves were meat and drink to the Toulon defence and were hindered by their pack's inferiority up front.
Today, the approach seems clear. Secure primary possession, soften up the Exiles pack through prodigious use of the maul and close-in runners such as Wallace and Leamy and play for position through O'Leary and, particularly, Ronan O'Gara.
If that is achieved successfully, Munster should have a buffer to expand in the second-half. Nothing too elaborate (which should reduce the risk of Munster players running into each other as happened, embarrassingly, last Sunday) just a back-line approach that concentrates on sucking in defenders, hard running and timed passes to put fast players into space.
A consistent issue that is relatively easy to rectify through patience and concentration. Nigel Owens is an excellent referee and one Munster know well. The target today should be a single-figure penalty count and no cards -- then Munster are in business.
The importance of fans can be overplayed, but Munster have drawn heavily on their supporters over the years while the self-styled Red Army has been proud of its reputation as the most fervent in Europe. Today will be a test of the relationship.
There has been much talk of a fall-off in demand for this match on a 'what's the point?' basis and banks of empty seats will do little to lift the players after a pretty grim few days.
Conversely, a decent attendance desperate to demonstrate their commitment to the cause could inspire a performance to raise morale and get things back on track.
Never mind Dail Eireann, Thomond Park is Munster's House of Representatives for this afternoon's session and there is much to be resolved.