Sunday 19 August 2018

History lesson can unlock winning formula for Reds in Paris

Plenty of eyes will be on Ryan and Zebo as Munster bid to continue winning streak against true powerhouse

Simon Zebo will tomorrow face the club who he will be playing with next season when Munster take on Racing 92. Photo: Sportsfile
Simon Zebo will tomorrow face the club who he will be playing with next season when Munster take on Racing 92. Photo: Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

Barely anyone gave us a chance before we got on the plane. We were over the hill, according to Stuart Barnes - a bunch of weary men blinded by past glories and heading straight into a French ambush.

Perpignan had not lost a European tie on home soil for five years, and the week before they probably should have beaten us at Thomond Park, a late penalty from ROG clinching a one-point win, our second victory from our opening three pool games.

The group was finely balanced but the general feeling was we were about to be knocked off our perch and the reigning French champions would make it 17 European wins on the trot at their Catalan cauldron, the Stade Aime Giral.

Our form towards the end of 2009 had been inconsistent at best, four losses from eight Celtic League games, including a humiliating 30-0 drubbing by Leinster at the RDS.

But at the same time, we were the reigning champions in that competition, and just 18 months previously had been top of the pile in Europe.

Perpignan, who were then being steered by now France boss Jacques Brunel, were a formidable outfit, and had more than two converted tries to spare against us in both of our previous visits - in 1998 and 2003 - to the last French city before you hit the Spanish border.

But that Munster team were never paralysed by fear. We were a dangerous bunch with our backs against the wall. You wrote us off at your peril.

Lesson

We were given many a French lesson over the years but by that stage we had accumulated away victories against Colomiers, Toulouse, Castres, Stade Francais and Bourgoin.

Twenty-year-old Perpignan flanker Yoann Vivalda naively compared us to an academy team after our Limerick smash and grab, but he found himself uncomfortably trying to digest those words only days later.

Paul O'Connell, David Wallace and Paul Warwick were immense but it was one of those days where the entire team stood up.

Perpignan expected to absolutely batter us up front but we blew them off the park.

Doug Howlett's 80th-minute bonus-point try made the upset victory all the sweeter.

Players, coaches and fans may change but the fearless culture at the province has remained.

The history of success and tales of famous wins in England and France highlight the responsibility placed upon those wearing that Munster jersey.

There is a duty to follow what has gone before you and, in equal measure, past triumphs offer great inspiration.

Munster teams never travel in hope. The expectation is always there.

While Johann van Graan's side face a daunting test in Paris tomorrow evening, there is plenty of room for optimism. And if they do succeed, it would rank alongside the province's greatest victories on French soil.

Racing may be swatting enemies aside with ease at the moment, and already turning the futuristic U Arena into a 4G fortress, but this Munster side, despite the odd wobble this season, have already proven they can raise their game for the big occasion.

If they set the terms of engagement, sticking to Munster's traditional formula for success, they are a match for anyone in Europe, home or away.

Leicester may not be the force they once were but the manner in which Munster bullied them around Welford Road indicates the maturity and collective will of this current Red Army.

Similarly, having destroyed Racing in Paris just 12 months ago, and winning on Glasgow's artificial surface just a week later, Van Graan's side don't have to spend too much time rummaging for the winning template.

France remains a very difficult place to get a result, but it's nearly 20 years since Munster's first win in Gallic territory, and 18 since Brian O'Driscoll's third try at the Stade de France really burst their bubble of invincibility on home turf.

The mindset of Irish sides heading to France has completely shifted and a game in France is just another away game, no longer a ticket to an almost-certain humbling.

Just how we managed to change that attitude remains a source of intrigue and is a regular topic of discussion any time I meet some of the French guys who saw the Irish sides suddenly start to arrive for battle with their heads up and chests out.

Racing may be able to call on world-class players such as Virimi Vakatawa, Maxime Machenaud and the remarkably-gifted Leone Nakarawa - although the absence of probably the greatest fly-half of all time in Dan Carter is a significant blow - but Munster will not be lacking in quality or belief.

The province have won 12 times in France from 32 attempts and if they can win the forward battle tomorrow they will have a great chance of making it 13 from 33.

Munster have prevailed in their last four games against Racing and the two most recent victories were built on a ferocious effort by the pack.

Triumph

Funnily enough, last year's triumph in the postponed Paris game, against a backdrop of at times overwhelming emotion, was one of Donnacha Ryan's best games for the province.

He was everywhere; making 15 tackles, disrupting Racing mauls, running a well-oiled Munster lineout, and generally just being a menace.

It will be a strange day for my fellow Tipp man - who incidentally replaced me on the hour mark during that famous 2009 win at Perpignan - as he prepares to turn the tables on a team so close to his heart.

For a man who epitomised what wearing the Munster shirt was all about for so many years, the prospect of tearing into some of his team-mates, and attempting to wobble his home province's Champions Cup campaign, will feel unnatural.

You might beat lumps out of each other on the training field but this is different. I suspect he won't be getting a lot of sleep tonight.

It will also be a strange occasion for Simon Zebo, playing for the first time on what will soon become his home ground, against his future employers.

You can be certain the Racing fans will be assessing his performance with a critical eye and Zebo will feel an added pressure to impress.

The conditions will be suited to expansive rugby, which will please Zebo and his fellow outside backs, but all signs still indicate this will be another bruising battle up front first and foremost.

Munster can't afford to let Racing breathe, and having a dominant pack is the French superpower's primary method of opening the airways.

Peter O'Mahony and Co have to frustrate Racing from the get-go. If they get their tails up early on it could be a long afternoon for Van Graan's charges, who at the very least will want to return to Limerick for their final pool game against Castres with a losing bonus point in the back pocket.

It's a delicate balance but Munster have to remain calm and disciplined while also bringing a ferociousness around the ball.

Essentially, they need to produce another classic Munster performance in Europe.

"When we play with intensity I think we're a very good side," O'Connell said after our momentous Perpignan victory in 2009.

"When we bring that intensity to our game we can do anything. It doesn't matter how badly you are playing sometimes - if you can play with speed, intensity, high work-rate and a good team spirit, you're always going to be difficult to beat.

"We weren't ever trying to be anything other than the real Munster."

Why change a winning formula?

Irish Independent

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