Conor George: Munster must summon spirit of old to halt Saracens juggernaut
ON Tuesday morning, away from prying eyes, Munster's first contact session of the week had a real feeling of deja-vu about it.
There was a mood enveloping the changing-room, one that stirred the memory banks of the older players, a familiar feeling that they couldn't quite identify.
It wasn't all that familiar to the younger, more inexperienced among them, but still they were wise enough to realise that something was up, even if they didn't quite know what.
It's always different during Heineken Cup weeks, but there was something more feral about the atmosphere on Tuesday, something more primal. A couple of the older heads caught one another's eye and acknowledged the stirring feeling they were sharing.
When the players left the dressing-room – after the team and replacements for the weekend had been named – and hit the pitch for the 'practice' match, it was suddenly obvious to the older players. The manic spirit that had driven that uber-successful team of the noughties had been repacked and recycled by this new collective and the evidence was on the pitch – players beat the absolute lard out of each other during the match.
This type of behaviour was nothing out of the ordinary in years gone by. Indeed, as one former player opined this week, if punches weren't being thrown in the Tuesday training session it was a cause for worry – "the team was announced on Tuesday, guys were p***ed off and weren't really interested in hiding it", but if the Tuesday session was rough then all was well in the camp.
The professional game of rugby continues to evolve and, unfortunately in some cases, become overly sanitised.
Munster's image has always been a hardy one. You can picture the sons of Munster doing back-breaking labour in the fields and then turning up on Saturday afternoon with their hobnail boots slung around their necks ready for a game of rugby. It's on that image the legend was forged.
When that team that spent a decade feverishly chasing their Holy Grail – the Heineken Cup – started to break up and new faces began to be introduced to the dressing-room, something was lost in translation.
The current keepers of the jersey are friends but they are not yet brothers, the way their predecessors were.
Siblings fight, all the time – "it was rare there wasn't at least one punch thrown in every training session" – but it's never a lasting thing. Egos are hurt, noses (literally) put out of joint but all animosity is – usually – forgotten quickly.
That's what happened on Tuesday. Players just went for it. Mauls were full-on, every breakdown was contested as if the ball were a precious heirloom and every ruck was a crime scene, there were so many bodies strewn about when play broke.
No-one held anything back and when the whistle sounded there were bruises everywhere.
There was also a feeling of contentment and camaraderie, of purpose and of filial loyalty, probably more so than at any other time in the season. There was a shared feeling of achievement.
It couldn't have been timed better. Saracens don't fear Thomond Park. It is not the fortress it once was. Leicester, Harlequins and Ulster have shown that the walls can be breached.
That the reason why Saracens will travel to Limerick with confidence. They are a seriously talented side and the confidence the likes of Owen Farrell and Chris Ashton will have gleaned from England's win over New Zealand is immeasurable.
In their two Heineken Cup games to date Saracens have scored eight tries. Their potency in attack is highlighted by their selection of the architect of England's victory over the All Blacks, Farrell, at outside-centre, which they can afford to do because of Charlie Hodgson's availability for the out-half berth. Saracens are a side oozing with attacking talent.
More than ever before Munster's defence is going to be tested to the limit. Saracens are set up to afford wings Ashton and David Strettle free rein to roam judiciously and can – and often do – pop into their attacking line anywhere, which makes anticipating their patterns extremely difficult.
When their attacking moves break down, however, they are vulnerable as their wings are invariably out of position.
If Munster can react and recycle ball quickly in these instances then their backs, especially Keith Earls, Doug Howlett and Simon Zebo can capitalise.
In this endeavour Conor Murray and Ronan O'Gara must be provided with quick ball by, in particular, their back-row forwards. And when presented with the ball, the Munster decision-makers must trust their instincts and play what's in front of them, so if there is a break on, they must try to exploit it instead of doing what they have been all season, which is slavishly shuffling the ball out wide because it is the predetermined game plan.
Saracens will test Munster like no other side has this season. They will attack them out wide through Ashton, down the middle through Farrell and Brad Barritt, and they also have the weaponry to engage in a front-on battle. Their front-row of Rhys Gill, Schalk Brits and Matt Stevens looks particularly formidable. It is against this quality of opposition that Dave Kilcoyne will earn his scrummaging stripes because the way the scrum goes, the result goes.
Saracens are not just grunt and grind. They can vary their game brilliantly, a process Munster are trying to master but, as yet, have been unsuccessful.
They are also excellent line-out operators and boast a phenomenal 100pc return from their two games. Steve Borthwick and Mouritz Botha have been dominating the skies. Donncha O'Callaghan and Donnacha Ryan must disrupt their rhythm while also keeping up their own high standards – Munster have a 97pc return out of touch themselves.
The make-up of the back-rows, though, is interesting. Saracens, especially with the return of Ernst Joubert to the base, have a harder looking edge.
Where Munster's trio of Dave O'Callaghan, Peter O'Mahony and James Coughlan have the edge in quickness. All three can gallop and in Coughlan they have one of the cleverest No 8s in the game. Coughlan's return from injury couldn't have been better timed and his control at the base, especially if the Munster scrum finds itself going backwards, will be priceless tonight.
If Munster play a smart game and play to their strengths they will be very much in this match.
There is no room to manoeuvre from Munster's perspective, though. Their loss to Racing Metro – how they lost that game is still a mystery – means they cannot afford to lose again in Europe or their season is over.
This is a worry, not least because this is not the Munster team of old, not the team of players – Alan Quinlan in particular – who would use their arrogant nature against them by so annoying the opposition, they were lost to the game. Instead of concentrating on the game, the opposition would spend the duration trying to exact revenge on individuals.
This, invariably, allowed Munster to take the advantage and fashion victory even in the most unlikely of circumstances. This generation are not at that level, their collective form isn't great and they have injury issues.
What they are, as evidenced in Tuesday's session, is determined and focused.
They are facing a side who, on paper at least, are more formidable, and they have been written off by so many that they are now immune to the outside negativity.
All week they have spoken internally about earning respect and shutting up the outside detractors. That can only be achieved through victory this evening. Is it a bridge too far perhaps? Maybe ... but, then again, maybe not.
MUNSTER – F Jones; D Howlett, K Earls, J Downey, S Zebo; R O'Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, BJ Botha; Donncha O'Callaghan, D Ryan; Dave O'Callaghan, P O'Mahony, J Coughlan. Reps: D Varley, W de Preez, S Archer, B Holland, P Butler, D Williams, I Keatley, C Laulala.
SARACENS – A Goode; C Ashton, O Farrell, B Barritt, D Strettle; C Hodgson, N de Kock; R Gill, S Brits, M Stevens; S Borthwick, M Botha; K Brown; W Fraser, E Joubert. Reps: J Smit, M Vunipola, P du Plessis, G Kruis, A Saull, R Wigglesworth, J Tomkins, C Wyles.
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