Sinead Kissane: Munster can mix new attitude with the old in Saracens showdown
Let's revisit another Lions year for a moment and Munster's European knock-out game against an English team in April 2013. Paul O'Connell was worried about his team's chances in their quarter-final against Harlequins because he didn't know what to expect. "I wanted us to be worried. I didn't want to tell anyone it was going to be fine, because I didn't know if it was," O'Connell wrote in his autobiography, 'The Battle'.
The night before the game O'Connell reminded his team-mates what English teams coming over to play them in big games at Thomond Park used to say in the build-up: that they knew what was coming. "We used to love reading those comments. Donners (Donncha O'Callaghan) would always say 'Lads, they think they know us but they don't'. But I felt our problem at that moment was that we didn't know ourselves," O'Connell admitted.
Maybe that was why O'Connell got emotional after their win over Quins as Munster didn't just surprise their opponents but also their captain that day. "It means so much to these young guys. There's so many people down on them every week, on their back every week. I know how hard they work," O'Connell said.
"I have to say that up to yesterday, yesterday evening, I wasn't sure what way it would go".
Munster went into that game with the almost obligatory poor performance the previous weekend in Glasgow. It seemed to be part of the script back then - that an element of self-doubt and edge that only a rough defeat could deliver would add to the spike in training for the real test ahead.
This season Munster are running off a different riff. They were without key players but they still beat Ulster at home last weekend and have at stages this season looked like a team which has forgotten how to lose. This new Munster doesn't seem to need a default position of doubt or a soul-searching loss to act as some sort of obligatory kick-up-the-arse exercise before a big European game.
On Monday, Keith Earls had a chat with O'Connell at their base at UL about the difference in mood this week compared to big games in the past. "I was just speaking to Paulie downstairs. Usually you know when it's a big European week a couple of years ago when fellas were on edge. It's so chilled now, it's a bit strange for a lot of us who've been around for a while. But that's the morale of the squad at the moment. It's nice and relaxed," Earls said.
How good it was to hear a player sound like they're enjoying the lead-up to a big game rather than being tormented by it.
Before the quarter-final against Toulouse, Peter O'Mahony was adamant about the team soaking up the build-up as much as possible and look how that attitude mobilised them against the French team.
That's the difference with Munster this season, they look like they genuinely enjoy what they're doing rather than allowing their attitude to be hi-jacked by the burden of it all. And, of course, winning helps.
That was Monday when Earls spoke to the media so maybe that relaxed vibe has been refined before today's Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens. But there seems to be a shift away from the 'we're better when we're bitter' psych-up. Also, throw Rassie Erasmus that tired bone about being underdogs for today's game and he's no interest in biting. They've moved on from that old chestnut.
"I don't always believe in the underdog tag, that you always have to be the underdog to perform. We probably are the underdog in this game but that shouldn't be something which drives us," Erasmus said. "It shouldn't be that we're surprising ourselves. I don't think that should motivate us."
Any desire to surprise others seems to be superseded by an expectation of themselves and their briefs within the game-plan. Little epitomises this more than Peter O'Mahony in the defensive line-out where he doesn't view the opposition line-out as a 'gimme' for the other team but as a real opportunity to reclaim the opponent's supposed advantage for themselves.
Predator-in-chief O'Mahony was superb in the win over Toulouse with two steals and a couple of disruptions. For today's match-up with Saracens O'Mahony leads the line-out stats with 36 from 7 European games ahead of that other ball-whisperer Maro Itoje with 28.
Sarries will know all about O'Mahony's threat: it was the throw from Saracens hooker Jamie George which was stolen by O'Mahony ahead of Itoje in the 74th minute of Ireland's win over England last month.
This line-out battle today will be better than any grip-lit with the protagonists involved. "People listen to him when he talks. It's almost like he's competing against himself not to have a dip. He sets a phenomenal example," Saracens Director of Rugby Mark McCall said recently about Itoje. It could easily have been Erasmus talking about O'Mahony.
The Saracens team today reads like a 'who's who' of international players. They come to Dublin with six players selected for the Lions squad - Munster are without one of their three with Conor Murray injured. But Munster are playing like a band of players who know what they're about. Plus, they'll have their support act.
"We have to understand we are not playing against super humans just because the crowd are noisy, we are just playing against a team," McCall said this week. "I think the players do know what's coming and what they are walking into and I think they are looking forward to it".
Did you hear that? Things might have evolved with Munster this season but maybe someone at some stage will remind his team-mates about what Donncha O'Callaghan used to say.
Lads, they think they know us. But they don't.
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