Alan Quinlan: Ronan O'Gara will know the three areas where Munster are vulnerable
It doesn’t matter how many times Ronan O’Gara travels to Thomond Park as a coach, as long as he is in the away dressing-room he will feel like a stranger in his own home.
It would be wrong if it felt right, and just because he has a different crest on his chest doesn’t lessen the importance of those Munster memories. He values that rugby bloodline as much as anyone. The red jersey meant absolutely everything to ROG.
The flashbacks will start rolling once he steps off the team bus this afternoon, triggered by the familiar faces, sounds and smells of European rugby in Limerick.
ROG has always been hugely passionate with a clinical edge and he has an excellent ability to read people. He knew when to deliver a fiery outburst if things weren’t matching his high expectations, and if he saw someone was a bit distant he knew when to put an arm around the shoulder.
His emotional intelligence is a huge asset as a coach while the fierce competitiveness ingrained in him is infectious. He was always desperate to win, whether it was a game of touch in training or a Heineken Cup final, and he loved pushing those around him to get the best out of themselves – he has essentially been a coach in the making all of his life.
I can’t help but wonder with ROG being three years older than Johann van Graan whether now might have been the right time for him to take on the top job at the province.
While the preparation may be difficult psychologically for ROG, there is an advantage in knowing the opposition so well. You know what they have been saying in training all week, the attitude they have, the way they prepare.
He will have done his homework on Munster, with a particular focus on their games against Leinster and Castres, and along with senior coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers will look to target Rassie Erasmus’s side in a number of areas that have appeared vulnerable.
If I were in ROG’s shoes, I would be putting pressure on Munster’s second-row, testing their uncharacteristically porous defence, and turning the screw at the breakdown.
Munster have been very unlucky with injuries and they could really have done with having Jean Kleyn (right), Gerbrandt Grobler and Jaco Taute available for the last two weeks. All three South Africans add significant physicality, an essential asset in Europe. Having Kleyn back in the starting team today is a huge boost for Erasmus.
The additional absence of Darren O’Shea and Dave O’Callaghan through injury and the summer departures of Donnacha Ryan, to Racing of all places, and Dave Foley to Pau, has illustrated a lack of depth in the middle of the pack.
Erasmus only had back-row cover on the bench against Castres in Robin Copeland and Jack O’Donoghue, which shows how short Munster are on options in that key part of the field.
At least Munster won’t have Donnacha in their faces for 80 minutes today as injury has prevented him from playing for the big-spending Paris club to date.
He’s such a tough competitor who prides himself on doing the hard yards and would be a massive asset for Racing in Thomond Park.
Munster miss him, there’s no doubt about it, and considering their current plight at second-row, seeing him lining up for Racing, after such a frustrating departure from the province’s perspective, would have been difficult to stomach.
Racing may be missing Donnacha in the second-row but in Fijian lock Leone Nakarawa they have one of the most talented and dangerous players in the competition.
He reminded us of his remarkable skills against Leicester last weekend, scoring a try few others could thanks to his brute power and rangy 6ft 6in frame, while the speed of the Rio Sevens gold medallist and his freakish offloading ability (he produced 10 in total last weekend) helped create Racing’s other two tries.
Munster know Nakarawa well from his time at Glasgow – he was man of the match in the 2015 PRO12 final in Belfast, Paul O’Connell’s last game for the province – and he seems to have taken his game to an even higher level since moving to France last year. He could cause Munster plenty of problems today.
Erasmus’s side have missed 37 tackles in their last two games which is well below the high standards they set under Jacques Nienaber last season; they must tighten up defensively today.
Another one of their strengths from last season which looked below-par against Castres was their work at the breakdown. They are not forcing turnovers, they’re getting isolated when going into contact and it’s hard to know if that is down to technique or attitude.
The good news for Munster is that most of their early-season issues can be fixed on the training ground and their combinations should be sharper with another week’s work under their belts.
Van Graan will be an interested spectator at Thomond Park this afternoon and it’s a great opportunity for this Munster side to show him what a Champions Cup game in Limerick is all about.
This fixture could be season-defining for Munster; a slip-up would leave them with a mountain to climb, while a victory would restore their buoyancy ahead of a hectic winter schedule.
Home advantage is huge in this competition – only 27pc of the pool fixtures from last season and this campaign thus far have resulted in away wins – but the Thomond Park magic can only do so much.
I have an eerie feeling about this. I know ROG so well and if he can get this talented bunch of superstars to match the home side’s intensity, Erasmus’s charges could be up against it. But, as this Munster side have proven time and again, they produce their best rugby when their backs are against the wall. It should be a cracker.