Wednesday 18 July 2018

Alan Quinlan - It's hard to believe it's been a year since we lost our leader

Motivation won't be lacking as misfiring Munster look to get their European campaign off to a winning start

Alan Quinlan congratulates Anthony Foley during their European Cup victory over Castres back in 2001. Photo: Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan congratulates Anthony Foley during their European Cup victory over Castres back in 2001. Photo: Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

Anthony Foley is never far from my mind but the nature of anniversaries and the scheduling of the rugby season is bound to bring his memory to front and centre at this time of year.

It's hard to believe that Monday will mark 12 months since the sudden passing of Axel, former team-mate at club, provincial and international level.

I was working in London last year when I received the awful news, and that sense of shock is something I will never forget.

Last weekend at the Aviva was particularly stirring. The previous October, ahead of the same Leinster-Munster clash, on the same turf we loved so much, I had my last meaningful conversation with Axel.

He was buzzing ahead of the game, and while it had been a tricky off-season following the appointment of Rassie Erasmus, Axel was delighted to be back coaching and was feeling optimistic after a positive pre-season.

I hadn't seen him that relaxed in a while, himself and Rassie were getting on well.

The way last season panned out, with Munster performing beyond expectations, his faith in the playing group was justified.

When I meet up with former team-mates Axel is still a regular topic of conversation; the disbelief around his loss is as strong as ever and it's good to remember all of the great times that we shared.

Handled

Munster deserve massive credit for how they handled the situation last year. They were incredibly difficult circumstances to deal with, and to go and play rugby after that was tough. But it was exactly what Axel would have wanted - he was a proud, passionate Munster man.

After a difficult week on the field, I'm sure Axel will be a great source of inspiration tomorrow when the province get their Champions Cup tilt under way.

There are eerie similarities with last year's campaign; starting off in France and being drawn against Racing and Leicester in the pool once again. Of course, next weekend's visit of Ronan O'Gara's French side to Limerick is bound to be another emotional occasion.

A lot of the discourse around Munster this week has centred on their pride in the jersey. I probably insulted them in January 2016 when I questioned their passion after a 20-point defeat to Stade Francais.

I know it's difficult to hear these things but they've got to channel that frustration as a group and show people it's something that shouldn't be questioned.

On the field, Munster certainly have a lot of things to get right. They have started their season reasonably well with four wins from six but Leinster exposed them at times last weekend, with their defence, lineout and the uncertainty around selection the most obvious areas for concern.

They need to get things right pretty quickly and Europe is obviously a step up again and it's tricky when you have to go to France for your first game. Ideally, you'd like to start with a home game to get off the mark early.

The lack of cover in the second-row is a serious issue, particularly considering the success enjoyed by Scott Fardy and Devin Toner last weekend. It's unfortunate that Jean Kleyn and Gerbrandt Grobler are injured at such a crucial point in the season but Mark Flanagan has a big opportunity to impress in their absence.

The tight-five need to be more solid to provide better quality ball for Peter O'Mahony, CJ Stander Tommy O'Donnell and Conor Murray to play the game on Munster's terms.

Look at the performance of Keith Earls last weekend, and imagine what he could do if he was regularly getting quality ball. His form has been incredible for the past year; he is a natural finisher and is making the most of any opportunity he gets.

The return of Simon Zebo should shore up the back-three area which was exposed by Johnny Sexton's cross-field kicks. Castres will have looked at that, so Munster must be prepared for another aerial onslaught.

You don't want any uncertainty around your pivotal players either, so Erasmus needs to back one out-half as the next few weeks are make or break in Europe.

It was a risk playing three out-halves last week and it was brave trying something new and going against the grain of Munster's forward-orientated traditions.

Erasmus's selection for tomorrow looks a lot more balanced and led by the partnership of Murray and Tyler Bleyendaal, you would expect Munster to improve with this week's review sessions still ringing in their ears.

The defence was a massive success last year under Jacques Nienaber; Munster only conceded four tries in the Champions Cup pool stages and shipped the least points of any side during the regulation games of the PRO12.

Injuries and the disruptions around selection following the Lions and Irish tours certainly haven't helped them hit their straps but the fact they have conceded 113 points in six PRO14 games, which is only the joint-fifth best defensive record in the competition, indicates it's an area they have regressed in.

That, along with the poor discipline they showed against Leinster, needs to be sorted if they are to get their European campaign off to a positive start.

Castres may not be flying high in the Top 14 but they remain a really difficult side to beat - it's always been a tough place to go.

While we haven't played Castres that much in recent years there was a time where we were nearly sick of the sight of each other, them probably more so than us.

Tomorrow will be the 13th European tie between the two teams, making it the most common fixture in the competition's history.

I have some great memories of playing at Castres; it is actually 17 years to the day since we beat them 32-29 in a pool game in the south of France against all the odds.

We were down 20-6 at one point and I was sent to the sin-bin in the first half. However, we rallied well through tries from Dominic Crotty, Anthony Horgan and ROG, and it was a result that gave us great confidence playing in Europe.

We also got the better of them 25-17 in the Stade de la Méditerranée in the 2002 semi-final, to secure our spot in a second decider, the famous defeat to Leicester.

We have shaded the previous 12 games 9-3 but all of our losses have come in the south of France, and considering Castres have already beaten Bordeaux and Clermont at home this season, they are still very dangerous at this level.

The one team to get the better of them at Stade Pierre-Antoine so far this season has been Vern Cotter's mighty Montpellier.

The big-spending, South African-heavy side appear to be a different beast after some eye-catching recruitment, notably convincing world-class out-half Aaron Cruden to forego his chances of adding to his 50 New Zealand caps at the age of 28, for the time being at least.

Leo Cullen has been talking about the uneven playing field in European rugby from a financial perspective, but it's always been like that to some extent.

The big question you have about Montpellier and French teams in general is their desire and their work-rate - that's where we have been able to get the edge on them in the past.

We saw it in January of this year when Frans Steyn got sent off at the RDS for a high hit on Johnny Sexton after just 27 minutes. Montpellier were shocking after that and went on to lose 57-3.

Cotter has probably changed the mentality this year and Montpellier have the ability to put up big scores; they've averaged more than 34 points across their seven Top 14 games, winning five of them and losing two.

However, they have also been shipping scores, particularly on the road, conceding 95 points across their three away games in the Top 14 to date, so this afternoon's clash at the RDS has the potential to be an absolute cracker even though Leinster are missing Sexton and Seán O'Brien through injury.

New man Van Graan a good fit

It's a relief to finally have the coaching saga sorted, and it seems like Munster have made a very positive appointment.

While there are understandable concerns around how he will handle the pressure of a head coach's role, particularly at a club with such high expectations, his reputation speaks volumes.

I was chatting to Jean de Villiers during the week and he is a big fan of Johann van Grann.

He described him as someone who has always adapted well across numerous roles and is an inventive coach who commands great respect from his peers and his players.

At 37, Van Graan is quite young but you have to remember he has been coaching since he was 23.

I thought it was interesting that he was primarily a forwards coach with South Africa but had a big impact on a lot of the attack structures. The fact he was the only coach to remain in the set-up following Allister Coetzee's appointment says a lot too.

It doesn't matter that South Africa have gone through a rough period while he has been in the set-up, he still has great experience of coaching world-class players and will have learned a lot from helping the Springboks to a World Cup semi-final.

When someone like De Villiers is singing your praises you're obviously doing something right.

Irish Independent

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