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The generation game


Niall Ronan addresses the media
in Limerick yesterday

Niall Ronan addresses the media in Limerick yesterday

Niall Ronan addresses the media in Limerick yesterday

So Limerick has fallen off the map, eh? Those quietly contemplating Munster's re-emergence as a major European force this season would disagree.

Local TD Niall Collins got into a bit of a flap this week by conjuring up a novel accusation to level at internet giant Google, namely that the tool supposed to help you find things had actually lost Limerick.

Collins' assertion was ultimately exposed as not being quite correct, and one wonders will he himself have difficulty staying on the electoral map come the next election.

Munster have no problems in this regard. Now ranked as one of only five realistic contenders by the bookies as the Heineken Cup race bounds towards Tattenham Corner, they are slipping imperiously into a familiarly challenging position.

Ignore them at your peril.

"You're probably giving us more credit than we deserve," smiles captain Paul O'Connell. "We're not getting ahead of ourselves. We're four from four and two of those were last-minute drop-goals. If those had drifted wide, would we be having any of these conversations?

"Certainly, we're heading in the right way. But at the same time, everyone is aware that there's a long way to go."

Limerick's international standard bearers intend to do their bit to keep the city on the map; successive win number five in the pool stages beckons this Saturday against familiarly thorny if enigmatic rivals, French title challengers Castres.

Loose talk on the streets whispers the possibility of a bonus point, unusually a first this late in the season, that may aid their quest for a home draw in the quarter-finals.

No such folly flirts within the camp; last season's sudden, shocking humbling militates against such hubris, an experience from which they truly learned that there is not always bonus in defeat.

"I can tell you that word isn't used down here," hisses coach Tony McGahan with good-natured menace.

"We can't afford to think that way at all," assents O'Connell. Steady as she goes is today's memo.

Munster's fascinating progress this season is at once restorative, but also at odds with their past; even the brace of last-minute drop-goals felt somewhat out of kilter. Nicking bonus points here, denying them there had been their perennial trademark.

And yet it seems as if, this season, all their dramas have been front-loaded; there may still be last-day theatre, of course, but just not as heady as in the heroic days of yore.

The mystique remains, but Munster themselves are the last to be dazzled by its glare.

"I think certainly we're in a much better place this year in terms of our willingness to fight for everything," expands O'Connell, warming to a familiar theme of renewal that is slowly attaching itself to this storied squad.

"Down through the years we've always pulled it out of the fire, late in the pool stages or whatever.

"But this time it's different. We came into this season knowing that we had to make every minute of every game count. We knew that if we didn't give it everything early on, there'd be no pulling it out of the fire, because that opportunity would be gone.

"This year we're probably coming from a different area in terms of the Heineken Cup and trying to qualify.

"It's probably similar to eight or nine years ago when qualification wasn't as regular an occurrence for us. We're aware of every moment."

Notwithstanding O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara's enduring excellence, this pair would acknowledge that the pain of transition would be a lot harder to swallow without the younger, eager types, whether Conor Murray last season or Peter O'Mahony this season.

"I think we're getting there," says O'Connell. "The young guys who have come through have been really good. There's a group of young players who have come into the team and they haven't just been happy to hold their own. They've come in and been close to the best players on the pitch -- Simon Zebo, Murray, O'Mahony.

"That's given us a great lift, to have these home-grown players coming through. When you lose guys of the quality of Felix Jones, Dougie Howlett, Jerry Flannery, stand-out players who are a big loss, it's great to have players to do a job and do even more than that.

"It lifts the squad and gives everyone belief and helps all those who are coming behind them.

"Their success, starting with Conor last season, and that belief, has been integral to us getting results."

As much as a human being needs to centre oneself, Munster needed to re-engage with themselves also, renewing their familiarity with old traits, something that was arguably lost during last season's pell-mell implosion.

"We're aware of where we are as a squad," agrees O'Connell. "Guys have retired, huge people who were part of the team and the atmosphere, part of why good things have been achieved here.

"Then we'd more injuries in the summer and more guys heading away. So, there was probably a sea-change in attitude without us actually talking about it. We were well aware of it because it was happening.

"I suppose teams have a way of figuring their own way out and we have that as well. We haven't been anyway dominant in this competition; we're four out of four, which is great. But we're not dominating. I feel that we're still in that kind of mode. We know we have to fight for everything and that's a good place to be."

With more younger players than ever before absorbing the club's special, for a while temporarily misplaced, spirit, Munster are unlikely to lose their place on the map.

Irish Independent