Wednesday 13 December 2017

Alan Quinlan: Time has come and destiny is calling for Axel's boys

Honouring memory of fallen coach can inspire Munster to an improbable semi-final victory

Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus checks his watch during the captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus checks his watch during the captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

There was always a moment, in every single game I played, when this raging debate would go on inside my head. More often than not, it would come in the second half, when fatigue would kick in, and if it didn't happen then when your concentration had a tendency to waver, then it occurred whenever you were under the cosh, frantically defending as a team pummelled away at your defensive line.

Make no mistake, these internal conversations will go on at the Aviva today and in Lyon tomorrow, too. If and when Saracens or Clermont put together a multi-phase attack, there will be Munster and Leinster players lying on the ground, having just put in a tackle, wondering where they will get the energy from to get off the floor.

Mako Vunipola in relaxed mood ahead of today’s Champions Cup semi-final showdown. Photo: Sportsfile
Mako Vunipola in relaxed mood ahead of today’s Champions Cup semi-final showdown. Photo: Sportsfile

One voice will tell them to lie there and grab a second's rest. And another voice will counter that argument with a conflicting message. "Get the f**k off that ground and be honest with yourself."

BE HONEST.

You often heard Axel say those words. He respected the player who didn't take easy option and stay on the ground. The man he admired was the one who kept going even when the odds seemed stacked against him.

Matured

Today, that's Munster, the side he coached, the players he nursed through a difficult period of transition, who have matured from a team who struggled to qualify for the Champions Cup last season into a team who are two steps away from winning the competition.

Logic says they won't. Logic points to the fact Saracens are the defending champions, the back-to-back Aviva Premiership winners, the club whose players get paid more and the team the bookmakers firmly believe will win.

But rugby isn't determined by logic.

Whether people like it or not, it isn't always decided by the team who have the bigger reputation or the bigger payslips. In every game, emotion comes into it, and that's something Saracens will be well aware of today.

Axel's name will be mentioned.

The Munster players will talk about him today. They'll quietly think about him and at some point, some of them will speak emotively about delivering a performance that would have made him proud.

They'll remember the times, on the training field, or in the dressing-room, when he asked them to be honest, and to go out there and play with passion.

They've been motivated by him for years. And they still are.

And a time will come in today's semi-final when the voice that comes into their heads will be Axel's. Saracens will have a period of dominance. They'll build attack after attack, try to suffocate Munster's attacking threat, and vary their tactics between a smart kicking game and a desire to play with intensity and width.

Their hard men will be keen to prove how tough they really are. Knowing they are the best team left in the competition, they'll be seeking to get a psychological and physical edge over their Irish opponents by being more aggressive at the breakdown.

Against them will be a team who have a point to prove.

They'll talk among themselves today about getting right into the Saracens players faces. They'll remind one another that against a team this good, it isn't acceptable to lose concentration in defensive situations and turn around to your team-mates with your hand in the air, saying "sorry, that mistake was mine".

Mistakes today could cost tries - and, by extension, a place in the final. The important thing is how Munster react to them.

And that's a key issue about this weekend's two semi-finals. Teams could be more afraid about losing than they will be motivated by winning.

If that sounds stupid then bear in mind I've experienced both emotions. I can remember the devastation I felt sitting on a plane coming home from France in 2003 after losing to Toulouse. I can remember the following days, the struggle to get to sleep, the pain of knowing another year had slipped away without a trophy.

And I remember the victories, the sheer joy followed by the overwhelming sense of relief, and then the excitement, looking forward to a final - not just the fact we were getting a big day out, but the knowledge that we'd be doing something that could be remembered forever.

That knowledge will be driving Munster's players today. They won't be sitting in their hotel rooms this morning thinking about how good Saracens are and how they are duty-bound to fear them. Instead, they'll be thinking about what how far they have come as individuals and as a team.

Their self-belief will be high, fuelled by the fact they have lost just four times this season, only one of those defeats coming in Europe.

They'll feel they are on destiny's path, there to make their own history, after spending so long trapped in the shadow of the 2006 and '08 Heineken Cup-winning teams.

Key reminders will be said to them.

Get the set-piece right.

Hassle Saracens at their lineout and scrum.

They need to perfect the little details, evoking Giovanni Trapattoni's catchphrase. So that means limiting self-enforced errors, working hard to maintain possession when they enter the contact zone, avoiding loose kicks, being quick to the breakdown, being focused in defence.

In reality, Munster need to deliver a near-perfect performance today. If they don't, they won't win.

Simple as that.

Yet part of me thinks they will do it, even though I know that this isn't the sensible thing to say.

And that stems from how I've seen this team evolve, how they have produced some fantastic performances and they've grown under the most traumatic of circumstances, winning those internal arguments that players have in their own minds.

Every player endures tough periods at various times and that is something these Munster players need to embrace today.

Years ago, Paul O'Connell always used to tell us to enjoy those moments, because those are the times when you grew together as a team, when - under severe pressure - you somehow force a turnover or a knock-on, when, to all intents and purposes, you seemed likelier to concede a try.

In those dramatic and decisive moments, you could sense something special was going to happen.

And that, deep down, is what Munster's players will be motivated by today, driven forward not just by the 50,000 voices in the Aviva stands but also by a voice inside their head: Axel's voice.

As for Leinster, their cause is similar.

Despite the absence of so many key players - the Kearney brothers, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip - they were still able to name a team packed with internationals.

Up against the best team never to have won the competition, they too can't afford to make unforced errors.

They have to get the basics right, have to impose their will on the match, have to trust in the men, and the tactics, that have got them this far.

From what I've heard, the players have been hugely impressed by Stuart Lancaster, who has done a marvellous job since he came in to work alongside Leo Cullen. Between them, and the other coaches, they have rebuilt Leinster from the rubble of last year's disastrous European campaign.

Again, the odds-makers favour a Clermont win. No one, thinking with a calm head, would back an all-Irish final.

And yet if it was to happen, if Munster were to cause an upset today and Leinster to do the thing same tomorrow, then I wouldn't be shocked.

In this sport, the men with the biggest hearts should never be overlooked.

Irish Independent

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