Thursday 14 December 2017

Good Friday protagonists must be prepared for further penance

Next weekend will bring tougher tests for both Leinster and Munster, says Brendan Fanning

I t was not long at all after the game in January when it dawned on Northampton Saints that they had left something important behind them in Thomond Park. Not the valuables bag under a bench in the dressing-room, rather something more important -- out on the pitch. In the history of European competition in Limerick, the home side have only lost once, and to opposition from England's midlands as it happens. Saints, Leicester's neighbours and keenest rivals, had a glorious opportunity to make that a unique English double. The problem was that they hadn't believed.

Afterwards, their coach Jim Mallinder was positive in his comments about how his team had taken the game to Munster, but he knew they should have taken it away from them as well. And then, when the mist had cleared on the pool stages and Saints had been drawn away to Munster in the quarter-final, the overwhelming feeling was of satisfaction. A chance to go one better.

With that in mind, Munster needed to send out a message on Good Friday that they were on the right track for next weekend. Jerry Flannery was back, even if Paul O'Connell and Keith Earls were absent, and the atmosphere was at fever pitch. In these circumstances, they needed their out-half to be clear and focused and, with five from five shots on goal, Ronan O'Gara was in the groove. It looked like a personal crusade to win back his Ireland shirt.

Yet O'Gara will have woken up with a pain in his head yesterday morning, caused by his team's failure to engineer a winning score, either through a drop goal or penalty opportunity. And that pain won't have been helped by the fact that it was a rush of blood from him that handed the winning opportunity to Jonny Sexton.

So where does that leave them? The plus points are that Nigel Owens, their favourite referee, will be on hand on Saturday. And Mr Owens' recent history with Northampton, who beat Leeds yesterday, is not good. In Saints' away leg against Perpignan, their prop Brian Mujati shoved Mr Owens out of the way (watch it on YouTube) with such force that it was incredible he only got six weeks and not six months. Mujati pleaded -- evidently with success -- that he had got a bang on the head and didn't know what he was at.

Moreover, it is positive that Saints ran Munster so close in January, for nothing drives them like the fear of losing. Well, perhaps that's outweighed by the upset at being slighted. It is one of the weaknesses of the Munster mindset that they need this crutch to motivate them, this idea that in some way their opponents have shown them no respect. Sometimes it backfires. Leinster, for example, were unimpressed by the attempts to cast them in this light on Good Friday.

Maybe Munster should be more concerned about their game management in the closing stages of that encounter. And whether O'Connell and Earls can recover from their groin injuries in time. Without O'Connell, they are a group without their natural leader. Without Earls, they are a three-legged relay team. If they can get this pair on the field, they will survive. If not, then they will need something more special than we saw from anyone on Friday night.

On next Friday meantime the champions will be under the cosh from France's most forceful team. We have the unique aspect of one team -- Leinster -- competing against their incoming coach. And then, if that team happens to get through to the semi-finals, they may be battling it out with their current coach's next employer.

Before we get to the possibility of Michael Cheika plotting against Stade Francais, first we have Joe Schmidt, who arrives in Donnybrook in the summer, trying to undo Leinster. So, has there been any contact between Schmidt and his compatriot Jono Gibbes lately?

"No. He's banned!" says the Leinster forwards coach. "He seems pretty keen for the game. Once this game is out of the way a few things can progress but that's been put on hold until this game's over. I'm sure him and Vern (Cotter) will be planning to spoil the party as much as they can."

Ah, Big Vern. As Gibbes says, Vern Cotter has moulded this Clermont pack in his own image. He believes that the winning of any game starts with running over the top of the other pack rather than around them. And these boys know the way to route one.

"Vern took a Bay of Plenty team in the Air New Zealand Cup that was basically a bunch of battlers," says Gibbes. "They gave a few teams massive hidings up front, physically. I can just tell these guys have been trained the same way. They obviously love it too, because they certainly like dishing it out -- and not off-the-ball, foul stuff, just straight-out contact. They love it."

That sets the tone then. Their style of direct, aggressive rugby has taken Clermont to eight wins from their 11 games since Christmas, but they were one-dimensional in a bruising defeat by Stade Francais in Paris yesterday. They were without Jamie Cudmore and Brock James for that game -- Martin Scelzo and Jason White are their only long-term casualties -- but they will be fit in time for Dublin. And it's not as if they don't have enough grunt in the pack without Cudmore. The addition of the Juliens Pierre and Bonnaire this season has added hugely to the consistency of the pack. And the recognition of loose head Thomas Domingo's talents by France coach Marc Lievremont has been well received in the Auvergne.

"Yeah, he's got quite a skill set," Cudmore says of his prop, who scored yesterday. "He's small and round but he's got the strength of an ox. He has a great knack of getting under bigger men and he's a powerful scrummager. And he's a mean customer around the field."

Sounds like they now have the complete package then? "I don't know about that but there's a really good spirit in the group here. We have lunch together every day after training and everyone's getting along well which is very important for a French team. And there's been a lot of banter around the clubhouse about Joe going to Leinster. Every time he opens his mouth now, we sing the Irish national anthem. It's all good."

Being a dedicated grunt and a disciple of Cotter's creed, Cudmore didn't mention his halfbacks, but in Morgan Parra and James they have the best footballing combination in Europe. And in what you would expect will be a tight contest, he who kicks his goals will win the game. This was a key indicator then of Leinster's performance when they went to Thomond on Good Friday.

In the RDS a week ago, Jonny Sexton again showcased his capacity to win tight games with last-minute strikes. In truth, he would have been a lot happier had that strike been off the tee rather out of his hand. Over the last four games en route to Limerick, Sexton was 9/23 with the placed ball, which is a country mile from where he needs to be. Returning stats of 3/5 hadn't cured his ailment.

Of course it was encouraging again to see him, late in the game against Munster, move immediately for the kicking tee having missed a handy kick moments earlier. Nothing wrong with his bottle, but the technical issue hasn't gone away. You wonder had he missed that, and somehow Leinster had got another opportunity, would it have been handed to Fergus McFadden, who incidentally will do a decent job in the unlikely event of Brian O'Driscoll not recovering in time. It's a very sensitive situation for Cheika and captain Leo Cullen to manage.

Already there is widespread unease about the game Clermont can impose on Leinster, but it is the home team whose defence is excellent. And when their forwards get it absolutely right, they are formidable.

"I think that's where we really have to be if we're going to compete with Clermont," says Gibbes. "If you ever see the Top 14 highlights show -- it's half an hour but it's pretty brutal. A few drop-goals and a few nice tries, but there's a lot of set- piece and confrontation goes on. As a pack, we can definitely deliver that but we just need to be really concentrating on the day."

Critically, of the two teams, Leinster have the history of winning -- domestically and in Europe. You can't buy the well-being that comes from scaling tall peaks. "It just gives you a belief that you know when you get to certain tight games that you have that in you to push through when it gets tight," says O'Driscoll. "When it got tight against Harlequins (last season), we pushed on; when it got tight against Leicester, we were able to find something. It's the same as any team: the more times you find yourself in a situation where you can experience something, and it goes right for you, it gives you encouragement to go and do it the next time you find yourself in that situation."

There was a bit of that in Limerick two nights ago. They may have been dodgy against Connacht a week ago but they won it at the death, and then produced different lines from the same script against Munster. And the Reds? They have done too much in Europe for their reserves of self-belief to run low, but certainly Tony McGahan needs to be picking from a full deck against Saints. Fear of failure fuels their effort. Fear of losing key personnel is a different issue.

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