Tony Ward: Munster players should be burning with resentment
Published 29/03/2014 | 02:30
'Better when bitter' applied more to Munster in my time than it does now – or so the modern-day players would have you believe.
Behind closed doors, I'm not so sure. So, despite playing it down since saying it, Rob Penney meant what he said about "facing the Six Nations champions".
Have you ever noticed the regularity of charm offences in the build-up to major modern-day matches? Save your breath for cooling porridge, as they say, and let your actions do the talking.
What Penney uttered was not said in jest and it will be turned into some psychological advantage by Matt O'Connor.
What Penney said is fully in keeping with the image that Munster players like to portray when coming up to the biggest rugby derby of them all.
Rest assured that what Penney said, in what appears to have been an off-the-cuff and flippant way, was anything but; the thrust of the build-up in the past few days will have been all about 'arrogant D4 Fancy Dans' – only a lot more colourful than that!
The game may have changed almost beyond recognition since going open, but I can tell you that in 2014 the motivation in Munster is no different now than it was the best part of a century ago.
I remember my first start in a full Munster v Leinster inter-pro at Musgrave Park (which I was delighted to see become the Irish Independent Park this week) back in 1977.
Then, like now, we (Munster) had only four current internationals in our side – Larry Moloney, Seamus Dennison, Pat Whelan and Brendan Foley. They (Leinster) had hammered Llanelli at Stradey Park the previous week, so were portrayed as the team of international all stars that were coming to do a number on Munster before moving on to the title decider against Ulster.
Tom Grace was captain, with Mick Quinn and John Moloney the halves, and Johnny Cantrell alongside Fergus Slattery the capped forwards. That was five capped players to our four, yet the build-up all week was centred on the injustice of the system, whereby we were getting a raw deal in the international divvy-out.
Pa Whelan was our captain and, needless to say, he spared nothing in the build-up, with various newspaper cuttings pinned around the hotel and the team room. For the record, we won and, yes, being bitter was central to it.
So, not alone was Penney quite within his rights in declaring war early in the build up, but he was spot on in his psychological assessment.
Not for a minute am I suggesting that emotion alone will be firing the red corner this evening, but minus that chip, that edge of bitterness, the Munster cause would never be the same.
Players, red and blue, know what it takes to get them right, physically and mentally, for a game of this magnitude.
It is not just another game – as the 'sold out' signs confirm – it's an opportunity, for some, to make a case for Test consideration, particularly those wearing red. I'm thinking of the likes of Felix Jones, Keith Earls, James Cronin, Damien Varley, Dave Foley, Dave Kilcoyne, Stephen Archer, Tommy O'Donnell and Simon Zebo.
James Coughlan, too, although time, allied to the quantity and quality of back-rows about, is not working in his favour.
For Jones, Earls, O'Donnell and Zebo, the stakes are particularly high. There is no copperfastened back-up full-back to Rob Kearney. Perhaps in a crisis younger brother Dave, Earls, Zebo or even Luke Fitzgerald could fill in the last line, but it is with little confidence I make that suggestion, other than on the basis of who else is there?
Perhaps Robbie Henshaw or Jared Payne (if not at outside-centre) in time. For Jones this evening, opportunity knocks.
Watching the former St Andrew's, Seapoint and Old Belvedere full-back against Treviso last week, I saw a full-back with real potential, but he is exasperating to watch – his incessant desire to clear out at rucks and mauls, however admirable it might appear, is selling himself and his team short.
He has the opportunity to establish himself as back-up to Rob Kearney in the build-up to the 2015 World Cup. Full-backs weren't invented to mimic flankers. Their role – look at Mike Brown, Leigh Halfpenny or Israel Folau – is more important now in a counter-attacking context than ever before, so generally third-centre, and not at the bottom of a mass of bodies, is where the full-back should be.
For Earls, O'Donnell and Zebo, too, the stage is set to let their rugby do the talking. It hurts when you are either a replacement or on the periphery of the national team. And if it doesn't, then you should not be there at all. These guys should be burning with resentment.
There is a huge chance before a full house at the Aviva to make the case for Ireland – yes, through out-playing your opposite number – but of much more importance is the unit and collective contribution that's necessary to carving out victory.
For Leinster, it's a significant outing for Fitzgerald (with so much potential still to be tapped), Ian Madigan, Richardt Strauss, Rhys Ruddock, Fergus McFadden and Jordi Murphy.
It is a strange Leinster v Munster lead-in period given the backdrop (the Carton House love-in for the last eight weeks or so), the injuries and the need to keep something in reserve for Toulon and Toulouse in a week's time.
But put it all together and before a heaving Lansdowne Road, it still has all the ingredients for an absolute cracker.
SEVENS AT THE 'NURE
Note to clubs and schools – don't forget it's the last few days for entry to the annual Terenure College Umbrella Sevens (April 5). For more info, contact tournament coordinator Ciara Close on 086 8602913 or irishoffice@ umbrellanepal.org
Rolland deserves fans' respect and acclaim
For Alain Rolland, the call to action at short notice to replace the injured Pascal Gauzere to referee today's Leinster-Munster collision should be most welcome, given the generous response of both Antipodean coaches to his appointment.
As well as that, it provides the Irish rugby public with this unplanned opportunity to give another Blackrock man – also the greatest ever at his craft – the type of send-off a brilliant referee and fantastic ambassador for our country deserves.
To represent your country is the greatest honour you can achieve as a player, but to then become the best as the definitive whistler takes some doing.
Rolland deserves acclaim – over to you Aviva.