Munster remain in neutral
The differences between Ireland's top two have become even more pronounced, says Brendan Fanning
Two images you associate with Munster and the Magners League: the first from when they won it in 2009; the second when they picked up the bronze medal three years earlier.
The scene in 2009 was post-match against the Ospreys, whom they had beaten without too much fuss to secure the title. You know the ritual: the 'Championays' dance as the victors line up behind the sponsor's hoarding, champagne corks popping and players bobbing up and down like corks on the tide. This one had been preceded by a sort of lap of honour, which was more like a circuit of the graveyard.
The entertainment value came from a gaggle of kids who had joined in the trot and were infuriating a Munster official who was trying to shoo them away. By the time the players lined up for the snap you had to paint the smile on the faces of Paul O'Connell and Mick O'Driscoll.
The scene in 2006 was the old Thomond Park, and a singsong was getting under way. Again Munster had completed their programme with a win, this time over more Welsh opposition, Cardiff, who were even less interested than the Ospreys would be a few years later. The prize on offer was only third place on the league podium, but you couldn't have beaten the smiles off the Munster faces with a thorny stick. They were saying goodbye to a clutch of players who had served them well, and around the place was a real sense of happiness that these players had been around to see the best of days.
The difference of course was Europe. In 2006, Munster had secured their first Heineken Cup win and life was so good it was worth all the pain that had gone before. In 2009, however, they had been beaten out the gate in Croke Park a couple of weeks earlier, in what was a seismic shift in the power base in Irish rugby. In the hangover after that, getting excited about the Magners was like being given a Smartie for your headache.
So how do you think they feel now, readying themselves for the visit of the Ospreys to Limerick on Saturday night? The Welsh had set themselves up for a tribunal of enquiry on Friday night as they were throwing away the game in Aironi only to claw it back. One moment they were staring disaster in the face, the next they're sorting a charter for Shannon where they went this time last year en route to the title. They're already packing their bags.
Limerick is no longer a scary trip. We remember the air of resignation all around the Harlequins camp back in 2004 when they came to Thomond with a white flag in one hand and a return plane ticket in the other. It was another era. Last Saturday morning in the Harlequins team hotel a remarkable thing happened: Ugo Monye was spotted having breakfast at 7.30am. In the restaurant, not brekkie in bed.
Getting the winger to move before lunch can be difficult. For this however he was up and about and ready to go, and nobody needed to harangue him into this state. In fairness to Conor O'Shea, he had framed the contest perfectly. They banged on all week about the young whipper snappers he would be letting loose in Limerick, that they'd play the brand of open rugby they love and if it worked, it worked, and sure if it didn't then no harm done. As an exercise in pressure-release it was effective.
They knew they would live or die at the breakdown. This game wouldn't come down to the set-piece, or a referral to the TMO, or a last-gasp shot at goal -- it would be about the 100-plus collisions that would happen right through the game.
Against Leeds in the Premiership the previous week they had coped with flanker Hendre Fourie, whose party trick is to slow ball at the breakdown. Those who have beaten Quins this year have done that successfully -- indeed it has been their starting point: slow them and cut off their oxygen. In the dressing-room after that Leeds game Nick Easter warned his team-mates that when it came to Limerick it would be like taking on a small army of Fouries such would be the pressure Munster would exert on them at the breakdown.
So they turned up in enemy territory expecting to be pelted by the locals, and instead found them to be not quite docile, but certainly not scary. Harlequins needed quick ball to play their game and settle themselves and they got truckloads of it. Send in two men to clean out the ruck; send in one man to do the work of two -- same result: ball pops out with icing on top.
In the Munster dugout, Tony McGahan was losing his mind. How could he be looking at so many red shirts on the ground after a collision, with the ball already winging its way somewhere else?
In the trade these are called logs. As in 'lying on ground'. Rewind to Munster's Heineken Cup win in 2006 and recall the amount of time they would spend hollering at each other to get back on their feet and get back into the defensive line. Being caught on the ground for longer than a couple of seconds was a mortal sin.
When Munster were at their best they played rugby that was intense and accurate and the trick was in combining the two. Their set-piece -- certainly their lineout -- was sound; their restart good; their kicking game very good. Lob in manic intensity and opposition teams would cave in. Northampton do something similar at the minute, just not as well, and with Stephen Myler a mile off the ability of Ronan O'Gara at outhalf.
Munster are nowhere near that now. The fundamentals of their game are unsound, undone out of touch by the loss of the Hayes/O'Connell/Flannery axis, and plainly unreliable at the scrum. When they don't get go-forward ball off the first phase, they battle to generate it subsequently.
Midway through the first half on Friday night they nicked a Connacht lineout through O'Connell, whereupon they attacked from one side to the other and back again, making 16 passes as they ran through 10 phases. At that point O'Gara, evidently frustrated at the ground gained -- 12 metres -- chip-kicked. Connacht gobbled it up and that was that.
It seems simplistic to say that they need a battering ram at 12, but certainly Munster are stuck in neutral at the minute. Quins dragged them around the place last weekend, and an ordinary-enough Connacht effort upset them. Mentally you wonder where Munster were at on Friday night though; despite fairly savage self-analysis last week they were short of the mark, and the interlude between Denis Leamy and referee David Wilkinson -- where the No 8 answered incorrectly the question if he wanted to be marched back down the field -- was bizarre.
So they have another battle on their hands on Saturday, even allowing for the fact that the Ospreys are in crisis. And if McGahan is to be honest with himself, he won't be able to guarantee that his team will have their heads in the right place for it either. For any coach, that would keep you awake at night.
Spin up the M7 and Joe Schmidt has an altogether different task on his hands. Like how to manage his plentiful resources through a Magners League semi-final and then a Heineken Cup final, with the bonus of the former on the Friday night which allows for extra recovery time. So, what to do with Fergus McFadden and Isaac Boss? Start them ahead of Luke Fitzgerald and Eoin Reddan. And Shane Jennings? Start him too.
Schmidt has run with Kevin McLaughlin at six in the quarters and semis and on Friday night against Glasgow he started him in the second row, an interesting selection given the widespread contention that Declan Kidney will want his fourth second-row for the World Cup (along with O'Connell, Callaghan and Cullen) to provide a back row option. With McLaughlin it's more the other way around, but he ran well there against Glasgow.
His contribution to the scrum, where he was behind Jack McGrath, making his first Magners start of the season at loosehead, is less clear. Schmidt went into bat big time for McGrath in the post-match interviews, which came across more like a protective coach than an impressed one. Leinster's scrum was up and down. McGrath is rated and maybe it was trouble elsewhere in the pack, for Devin Toner isn't noted in that department, and Schmidt is on record as lamenting that Stan Wright didn't have more time with scrum coach Greg Feek. Either way, the collective wasn't great and maybe Schmidt should bear this in mind when putting together his bench for the last two games.
He has lots of room to manoeuvre. For example, if he opts to start with Shane Jennings against Ulster alongside Jamie Heaslip and Seán O'Brien, then he can put McLaughlin on the bench instead of Toner, who struggles at this level of competition. You feel Rhys Ruddock would be a more useful man to have there as well ahead of Dominic Ryan, whose hands are not his strong suit. Ruddock is the business.
It's good for Leinster that Ulster are their opponents on Friday. Even though Dan Tuohy, who pulled a hamstring in Newport on Friday night, looks like joining Paddy Wallace, Andrew Trimble and Stephen Ferris on the injured list, Schmidt already has his players braced for a backlash after the whupping they unleashed on Ulster last month.
"To be absolutely honest, I'm more worried what they will take out of it -- their resolve, because they're better than those two results would suggest," he says of the two wins this season. "They certainly did a good job on us in the second half here at the RDS and the back 30 minutes at Ravenhill. The first 50 minutes of both those games we got away on them. I'm pretty sure they'll be saying: 'Let's make sure we go from the start. If we go from the start like we finished the last 30, we can put it to these guys and if we're close it's anybody's game. If it's close let's keep knocking them over and we can take the advantage in the game'.
"For us there will be a fear factor because I know a lot of players have a lot of respect for the Ulster players and there's also the fact that it will be our last game at the RDS for the season. We've managed to keep it a place where we haven't been beaten. We'd certainly be very, very motivated to make sure the same thing happens next weekend."
Clearly Schmidt has every faith in Munster knocking over the Ospreys, for as the second-placed team Leinster would have a home draw if they get to the final and Munster don't. And that's a Magners image Munster don't need: losing to the Ospreys again in Limerick? Let's not go there.
Sunday Indo Sport