Alan Quinlan: 'Van Graan’s men must tackle mental block to kick on at crossroads of season'
“Few scouts can go into the mind of a young man and determine whether he’s really confident about what he can do. So you can sign him based on his ability, but then he’s got to be successful to be confident. And once he becomes confident, that’s when you’ve got something.” ‘Moneyball’
It is not another do-or-die semi-final, nor is it an occasion likely to mirror the complexity of Hollywood baseball blockbuster ‘Moneyball’, but in the context of this Munster team, particularly psychologically, this evening’s mouth-watering showdown in Limerick could be season-defining.
Successive defeats are always unwelcome in the ledger, but with fixtures against Leinster (home), Connacht (away), Gloucester (away) and Exeter (home) over the next three weeks, if Munster don’t start clicking soon the solid foundations they built earlier this season could begin crumbling into quicksand.
Munster have impressed in patches this season and statistically they are still sitting relatively pretty – top of their Champions Cup pool and second in Conference A of the PRO14, behind Glasgow, with only their opponents today boasting a better attacking and defensive record in the competition.
However, their failure to score a try away to Castres a fortnight ago or in Belfast six days later is a concern because to beat Leinster you have to make the most of your limited opportunities.
Even in their last victory, the 30-5 success at home to Castres, Munster lacked fluency in attack, so finding rhythm with ball in hand, no matter what combination of players are operating behind the scrum, has become a priority for the Munster coaching staff.
Munster have recruited well and while they may not yet be able to match Leinster’s oceanic depth, the addition of Tadhg Beirne, Joey Carbery, Arno Botha, Mike Haley and Alby Mathewson gives them a much greater chance of competing for honours on two fronts.
However, for all of the depth that Johann van Graan has added this season, it remains difficult to assess if his side have actually moved forward from this time 12 months ago, an obvious consequence to the timing of injuries to key individuals this season.
There is also an underlying feeling that Munster’s PRO14 statistics may be skewed somewhat when you consider that included among their impressive totals for points scored (339) and tries scored (47) are the victories against second-string sides from Cheetahs (38-0), Ospreys (49-13) and Ulster (64-7).
In fact, two of Munster’s best performances to date this season have arguably come in games that they haven’t won – their 10-10 draw away to Exeter to open their Champions Cup campaign, and the 30-22 PRO14 loss to Leinster at the Aviva at the start of October.
A win today would not just end a torrid run of just one victory against their arch rivals from the last eight outings – and that was against a second-string Blues side in this fixture two years ago – but it would instil invaluable belief in this crop of Munster players as they face into the business end of the season.
Leinster are sending a formidable side to Limerick but Munster should have no fear – after a sluggish start in the reverse Dublin fixture, some James Lowe magic helping to build an early 14-0 lead, they caused the reigning PRO14 and Champions Cup holders plenty of problems, particularly up front.
With CJ Stander, Chris Cloete, Beirne, Jean Kleyn, Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell and John Ryan in the pack, you would expect that Munster will be looking to make hay in the close exchanges and in the set-piece again this evening.
There will be little goodwill between these two teams at Thomond, and that’s what these interpros should be all about. Both sides are close to full-strength so this should be a humdinger.
Munster need to at least match Leinster physically from the get-go to disrupt their rhythm and knock them off their stride, just like Toulouse managed in Round 2 of the Champions Cup.
The template is there, Munster just need to do what they haven’t managed for the last number of weeks – be clinical in their execution.
Crucially, too, if they get into a winning position against Leinster, as Connacht found out to their cost last Saturday, their game management needs to be on point.
Give Cullen’s side an inch and they’ll take a mile, and before you know it you’re gasping for air as you watch the Leinster No 10 line up yet another conversion to steer his side to an unlikely victory.
If Munster fail to produce a performance that troubles Leinster, all of a sudden the prospect of travelling to Galway and Gloucester in the next fortnight becomes considerably more daunting.
For all of the psychological strength that a victory would give Van Graan’s side today, another defeat to Leinster has the potential to really rock Munster’s confidence at a crucial stage of the season.
For me, last weekend highlighted the crucial difference between these two teams – belief.
Leinster are never beaten, and just like Manchester United in their pomp under Alex Ferguson, or Dublin’s Gaelic footballers under Jim Gavin, they rarely panic, even when the clock becomes their biggest enemy.
There is a winning culture in Leinster at the moment but we have to remember that is a relatively recent development, and you have to think that Van Graan’s side are only a couple of big performances away from claiming silverware and the powerful feeling of invincibility that it brings.
I believe Munster can get better, and I believe they will get better. But if they are to fulfil their potential this season, now is the time to get moving.
They can’t afford to strike out against Leinster again.