Monday 21 May 2018

The spiritual leader, the influential play-maker and the X-factor: Munster's three golden boys may never get better shot

Munster players Conor Murray, left, Simon Zebo, centre, and captain Peter O'Mahony
Munster players Conor Murray, left, Simon Zebo, centre, and captain Peter O'Mahony
Keith Earls looks on during Munster’s training session in Limerick Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Munster are unrecognisable from the outfit that hoisted the Heineken Cup for the second time in three years in 2008. Of the match-day 22 involved in Cardiff that day, only Keith Earls remains at the province.

Four coaches have come and gone with just one Celtic League title in 2011 to show for their efforts, while one after another the legends who delivered unprecedented success retired.

The organisation has modernised off the pitch with its state-of-the-art base at the University of Limerick, endured tragic loss and some controversy while always remaining competitive on the field. Saturday will be their fifth European semi-final since Paul O'Connell lifted the trophy beneath the Millennium Stadium roof.

Leinster stunned them in 2009 to end their title defence and tip the balance of power at Croke Park, while against Clermont Auvergne in 2013 and Toulon in 2014, they went out on their shields on French soil. Last season, they met an unstoppable force in Saracens at the Aviva Stadium.

The Munster story has always been framed as something of a fight against the odds, sound-tracked by their anthem 'Stand up and Fight' which the players take quite literally.

Fans of the province growing up who attended the Heineken Cup successes of the 2000s, Conor Murray, Simon Zebo and Peter O'Mahony are the keepers of the flame.

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Aided an abetted by a South African who has bought into the club like a local in CJ Stander, veterans Keith Earls and Billy Holland and the rest of the cast of characters that makes up the Munster dressing-room, they have managed to keep the competitive spirit alive despite a relative decline.

There have been tough days along the way, a couple of seasons when they exited Europe with barely a whimper and struggled for traction on the domestic front but as long as the province could get their internationals on to the field they always had a chance.

They have worked tirelessly to get to this point this season, managing a coaching transition that might have derailed a more fragile bunch and bunkering down during the controversy that reigned over the signing of Gerbrandt Grobler.

In the captain O'Mahony they have a spiritual leader and the man who sets the tone on and off the park.

In Murray, they have arguably Europe's most influential player, a decision-maker par excellence who has been operating on another level for two seasons.

And in Zebo, their X-factor man, they have a departing hero who has, at most, six games left in the red jersey before he joins Saturday's opponents Racing 92.

Soldiered

Firm friends off the pitch, they have soldiered together through lean times and promising moments but this has been their team for a few seasons now and they'll know that what stands before them is a very real opportunity.

It may be their best shot at European glory.

They know just how fragile this balance is. Fitness, form and the comings and goings every season mean that no two groups are ever the same.

In riding out the storm against Toulon, they downed one of the teams that could have realistically won the tournament this year. Leinster took out Saracens and Racing downed Clermont.

Had they come across Saracens again, they might have been scarred by last year's experience but they know Racing, Leinster and Scarlets and would back themselves against any of them on the day.

In the past, they were burdened by the past and the expectation that came with being Munster players but earlier this season Murray outlined that this group had created their own identity.

"It definitely was a burden, because when you were playing with the older lads and you were starting in the team and we weren't winning," he said.

"I know we got to a couple of European semi-finals and essentially it's another game away and then you're that - so you're not that far away.

"At times you were playing with those lads and you're not enjoying the success they had. But then again, they had 10 years of not winning things and then two European titles in three years, that's their history.

"That's what we want, but nobody's burdened by it (now). You want to emulate it, but it's not who we are.

"We enjoy our rugby now, if you're constantly chasing something and burdened by something then your career will be over and it's, 'F***, I didn't really enjoy that...' We're enjoying what we're doing here, hopefully success comes with that."

If they are to be successful, the scrum-half will be the key man.

Perhaps no other one player in any of the four semi-finalists is as important to his team as Murray is to Munster.

Delivers

"I've always thought he was a great player. He just delivers every single week," Johann van Graan said of his No 9. "He's just incredible. I think his biggest asset is maybe his decision-making, he seems to make them in slow motion and he seems to make the right one time after time.

"When he's on the field he brings a lot of calm to the team and I thought he did really well when he came off the bench at the weekend."

With Murray setting the tempo on the pitch, O'Mahony sets the tone off it.

"You don't meet many people who can inspire you with a sentence when you sit in his presence in a meeting room, and he could just say one line and you'd be ready to give your all for him because he's one of those guys that you know is going to follow those standards himself," Sam Arnold said of his skipper. "When you know someone is going to do that, you know they're going to have your back on the pitch and you'll do everything for them on the pitch as well.

"He's just an incredible leader."

With Zebo chipping in with a try every second game and adding security from behind on the pitch and little light relief off it, they have a strong combination.

There is plenty more to draw on in terms of Earls' bravery, Stander's relentless energy, Andrew Conway's battling qualities, their centres' ability to punch their weight and a tight-five who can trade blows with much more expensively assembled opponents from France.

Yet nobody sums up the current generation like Zebo, Murray and O'Mahony. All three are 28, all three have seen opportunities come and go.

They'll know that the time has come to seize one before it is too late.

Irish Independent

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