Tuesday 24 April 2018

Don't forget that hunger can beat class

Having experienced San Sebastian's hostile atmosphere, Frankie Sheahan knows what Munster need to do today

It's 4.50pm on Sunday, April 3, 2005 and it's half-time in the Munster dressing room in San Sebastian. We are trailing by 16 points and 32,000 crazy supporters, many of them in the red of Munster, are outside basking in the sun while our head coach Alan Gaffney is reading us the riot act.

"Watch your discipline and stop giving Biarritz stupid kickable penalties." This was the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup and looking back now, the game was effectively lost by then. I know we went out in the second half and gave it loads, but we still lost by nine points. We had decided to play against the wind in the first half and, ultimately, that was our undoing.

I remember just before we arrived at the stadium, Anthony Foley warned us that we were about to enter a cauldron and that it was vital to tap into whatever support we had at the ground. In the heat of ferocious encounters, support does matter and it can give you a lift when you least expect it.

If I had any doubts over what Axel had said, they were well and truly dispelled when we made our way onto the pitch for our warm-up As we emerged from the tunnel, you could literally feel the hostility -- the booing, the drums, it was unreal. This is a tactic used by the French in an effort to intimidate the opposition. It has also been known to happen in Thomond Park on occasion.

Anthony's idea on this particular day was to reach out to the Munster supporters and let them know that we needed them more than ever, even though they were outnumbered three to one. Mick Galwey had done this so successfully in Bordeaux in the 2000 semi-final when we beat Toulouse. We did our warm-up near the biggest pocket of Munster supporters we could find and the reaction was superb. The Munster supporters all over the ground began to bellow out The Fields of Athenry and although the shocked Basque army were quick to raise the volume, it didn't matter: a statement had been made. It was not just a battle on the pitch, but a war in San Sebastian, and everyone was involved. To lose that day was a bitter pill to swallow.

Five years on, and Munster are backed into a corner -- again. They have just lost back-to-back games at home in the Magners League for the first time in six years; they are under pressure to make the play-offs of that competition; they are playing away from home in the fortress of San Sebastian, deep in the heart of hostile Basque country, minus their inspirational captain and talisman, Paul O'Connell. We've been down this road so many times before.

As a former Munster player, and knowing the psychology of the guys, it's almost as if this whole scenario has been created subconsciously because the fear of failure will get the very best out of each player.

People who have achieved success in sport, and indeed business, will identify with what I am saying. Recently, at a motivational talk, I was asked how teams like Munster keep winning against the odds? For my money, and without throwing in too many clichés, there are some rules.

There is a fine line between confidence and complacency. In rugby, it is vital to be confident and have an inner resolve. One must realise that hunger will beat class so it is important to commit to hard work and focus so that you are totally in the zone no matter how good you are.

When the odds are stacked against you, when your own supporters, the media and even Paddy Power write you off, it will, without question, put doubts in your mind. You may ask yourself how all these people could be wrong? This is when a winner's mentality will kick in, knowing that your regular performance will not be good enough, that you will need to raise your game another 20 per cent. This, coupled with a hunger to win and belief that you can win, will determine if you can actually raise it that extra bit.

It happened to us last year before we played against the All Blacks in Thomond Park. The manner in which they disposed of Ireland four days previously scared the life out of us and that fear left us in no doubt that this was sink or swim. Facing the best in the world with the bones of a second-string team, a 60-point loss would not have surprised people. This would not only have been embarrassing, but our pride would also have been severely rocked. We went out and, despite losing, played totally above ourselves. The fear of getting humiliated, of letting people and the jersey down, led the majority of us to produce superhuman performances. An All Black try in the dying minutes dashed our hopes, but we had every right to be proud of the performance.

Munster did the same against Leinster in the 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final, and Leinster did it to Munster in last year's re-match.

Despite being slight favourites today, it is one of the ways Munster will attempt to over-achieve. The two teams know each other well -- this is the fourth time they have met in the knock-out stages of the competition.

Apart from that sweltering April day five years ago, the other meetings were memorable for different reasons. Our first encounter was in 2001 when we won an epic tie at Thomond 38-29, on a day remembered as much -- by me anyway -- for Anthony Foley winning a lifetime's supply of pizzas from Dominos after a remarkable hat-trick.

Then, of course, there was the day we finally made the breakthrough in Cardiff, winning the competition for the first time. We all remember the images of O'Connell Street in Limerick being flashed into the Millennium Stadium at a crucial stage to lift the players and supporters.

Today, the bell will be rung for round four. Biarritz have hardly set the world alight in the Top 14 this year. As it stands, placed seventh, they will not be in next season's Heineken Cup because only the top six automatically qualify. This means they need either Toulon to win the Amlin or Toulouse or themselves to win the Heineken, thus ensuring a seventh French team in the competition.

This Biarritz side is nowhere near as good as the side from 2005-06 and, by their own admission, their fitness is not where it should be and that will come against them today. Fitness is one area where, under guys like Paul Darbyshire and Aidan O'Connell, Munster would back themselves, so don't be surprised if you see Munster speeding the game up when they get a chance. For the record, if Imanol Harinordoquy plays with his dodgy nose, he had better wear a motorbike helmet because that nose will attract more attention from the Munster players than a Leinster supporter in Thomond Park.

To win, Munster will need a performance similar to that against Perpignan in the pool stages. Munster, from 1 to 15, were in the zone that day and obliterated the French team in virtually every aspect of the game, including the scrum, on their home soil. Coming away with a bonus point was the icing on the cake.

If Munster can do this again, particularly in the forward exchanges, there will be no stopping them. Biarritz will look to take an early lead and defend it, as in 2005, so it is imperative that Munster do not let this happen.

It is a big ask again for the stars from the quarter-final, Mick O'Driscoll, David Wallace, Alan Quinlan and Tomás O'Leary, to play at the heights they did then, but it is a must. It will be an uphill battle minus O'Connell and also the likes of Denis Leamy and Doug Howlett. Can we do it? Yes we can.

frankie@frontrow.ie

Sunday Independent

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