Tuesday 24 October 2017

Alan Quinlan: The new Munster remind me so much of the old Munster - but today's challenge is their toughest yet

The Munster squad during training Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
The Munster squad during training Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

I wake up shortly after eight. Hearing a door slam from somewhere down the corridor, I get out of bed and move silently to the balcony, determined not to wake Ronan O'Gara, my room-mate.

There I look out onto the gardens of this picturesque hotel. It's sunny, and the few people already up and out are dressed in T-shirts and shorts, walking around as if they haven't a care in the world.

Glasgow head coach Gregor Townsend Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Glasgow head coach Gregor Townsend Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images

It's never that way with me. Not on match day. Tension is always close to the surface when there is a big game coming up, and today's one - the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final against Leinster in Croke Park - is as big as it gets.

The morning passes slowly, insufferably and uncertainly.

All week we've talked about Leinster and the threat they'll bring. Overwhelming favourites, having beaten them twice this season already, we have trained well this week, stuck to our routine, held as many team meetings as we normally do and are far from complacent.

The night before, as we sat around in our team room - people spoke up. Even I had my say. "They'll come at us," I said. "We've got to be ready for that."

I wasn't the only wary person in that hotel.

Nicky English, the former Tipperary hurler, is a friend of mine who lives just around the corner from where we're staying. He calls in for a coffee late that morning and as we sit in one of those old-style rooms, with its bright walls and high ceiling, I can see his face register signs of apprehension.

"Ye need to be careful today," he said. "I'd be nervous enough about Leinster. Everyone has been writing them off."

His fears were justified. It wasn't that we were complacent; it's just that they got an early try, built some momentum and we weren't able to adjust. Then we panicked, tried to force things, took risks, paid the price, all the while allowing them to play the game they wanted.

There was extra fight in them that day - fuelled, almost certainly, by the fact they'd lost to us twice in that 2008/09 season, as well as in the 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final.

And all those painful memories revisited me this week as Munster finalised their preparations for a third date with Glasgow this season, following on from their two victories over the Warriors in the autumn.

Predictable

But sport - and particularly rugby - doesn't stick to a predictable script. In this game, you can win 38-0 one Saturday but get beaten by the same team the following week. Think Munster and Leicester from last month.

Why's it like this? For me, it stems from the fact that rugby, as a game, is all about having a physicality, an emotion, and a will to win. And because it is such a physically combative game, there is a challenge for any team, or player, hitting the right notes week after week.

I remember this from my own career. Week after week, someone would say, 'make sure you are not bullied or outmuscled'. The winner of a collision is not always determined by the sheer strength of a player, more often by their desire to come out on top.

So Munster have to take all this in before they walk out onto the field in Scotstoun today. Yes, they've beaten Glasgow twice - the first time on the day after Axel's funeral, when no club side in the world would have got the better of them.

Yet this game is different. When they met at Thomond Park in October, Glasgow were in a no-win situation. They'd paid their respects the day before, Gregor Townsend and assistant coaches attending the funeral. On the day in question, they couldn't have acted with any more class.

But now? This is their time. Townsend's tenure with the club is coming to an end, and while he has clearly done a good job, he's desperate that his legacy isn't tainted by another failure to make the Champions Cup quarter-finals.

So he'll be looking at this issue as well as the prize on offer - the potential of a home quarter-final - which, if the history of this competition tells us anything, is almost as good as a place in the semi-finals. Put bluntly, Glasgow will be motivated.

The challenge for Munster - who have answered every other question asked of them in the last 12 weeks - is to rise again and find another level.

Mentally they have been incredibly strong, dignified in their response to the tragedy, prior to embarking to a run of 10 wins out of 11.

Great performances at home - Glasgow, Leicester, Ospreys, the New Zealand Maoris - have been complemented by the way they have dug out results on the road, -in Ulster, Glasgow, Connacht.

That reminds me of our Heineken Cup-winning teams, and horrible days in Llanelli, when the rain pelted down and we rolled up our sleeves and said we'd beat the elements as well as opposition.

Confidence

Yet despite their improvement, I still feel they can be better again. Attacking-wise, not enough opportunities have been taken. What they have though is a confidence, a sense that they are on a mission and a level of fitness that is blowing teams away.

"They impressed me," Rog said to me this week. They work hard, they are relentless. They're really well organised. They're a good team."

This time last year, they weren't. Like last weekend, they were in Paris, struggling then against a side reduced to 14 men but who were dominant in the scrum. And now?

Now, Munster are barely recognisable from the team who were played off the park by Stade Francais last January.

Yes, they have been relatively lucky with injuries, but other issues have been even more significant in the turnaround.

The team has strengthened. Rassie Erasmus has done an incredible job guiding them but Anthony Foley's early-season work with the forwards is paying off too. So have Jacques Nienabar's defensive tutorials, not to mention the contributions of Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones.

On the field, Peter O'Mahony's return, combined with the general excellence of CJ Stander and Conor Murray, has been hugely influential, while the maturation of John Ryan, Darren Sweetnam and the Scannell brothers have made Munster look like a different team.

Ryan's scrummaging has been outstanding. Fitter, more robust and more confident, he has served as a reminder that your tighthead - in many ways - is the most important player on the field. If he is anchoring your scrum well then it sets a great platform. Munster didn't have that base often enough last year.

But this season, they are the ones who are dominating at scrum time and a big reason behind this stems from Niall Scannell's mental and physical growth.

His scrummaging has been really good; as has Dave Kilcoyne's - whose battle for the loosehead position with James Cronin is an intriguing sub-plot.

All of those players and staff were hurt last year by how bad things were. "We were absolutely miserable," Flannery said during the week.

And they've used the hurt and emotion from that, as well as the unthinkable pain caused by Anthony's passing, to drive them on.

The question hanging in the air is that at some stage the emotion will wilt. But I can't see that happening yet. If they are to lose to Glasgow today, it'll come down to rugby rather than psychological reasons.

Are Munster capable of recording an 11th win from 12 games? It won't be easy but the answer is yes.

Irish Independent

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