Friday 17 January 2020

Sinead Kissane: 'Time's ticking on more than European season for Munster's senior players'

There’s a genuineness about Johann van Graan which make his words less corny than how they might appear in cold print. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
There’s a genuineness about Johann van Graan which make his words less corny than how they might appear in cold print. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

It's always dangerous to blithely predict the outcome of a game that Munster need to win in order to stay in Europe with the odds stacked against them, mainly because Munster are the ultimate wind-up merchants in this regard.

It's long been corralled into a cliché how Munster perform poorly in a league game, harvest all the criticism that's dumped upon them and then go out the following weekend for the big European game and belittle expectation, form and predictions.

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We've seen this turnaround so often that writing off Munster's chances is a fool's game to play. But the flip-side is that when it goes wrong, it can go horribly wrong.

There's rarely any middle ground with how we talk about Munster with a (sometimes, unfair) boom-or-bust framework around their season. Their history is loaded with so many moments of drama that there seems to be a continual extremism at play between pleasure and pain, between you can't live with them and you can't live without them.

Look at this season. They just about negotiated a high-wire act on the opening weekend of the Heineken Champions Cup when they got the bonus-point try with the last play of the game in their away win over Ospreys.

On the following weekend the last act of the game ran to the other extreme. JJ Hanrahan kicked a difficult conversion against Racing 92 but minutes later he shanked a far easier drop-goal attempt which would have won them the game.

How do you get your head around that sort of roller-coaster - not to mention what it must have been like for Hanrahan himself? There's almost an assumption that Munster will pull-off some late-game sorcery, so when they don't the disappointment and frustration runs even deeper because they've done it so often in the past.

If Hanrahan had kicked that drop-goal it would have been the latest escape act in the fabled Munster story. Instead, there was almost a disbelief that Munster didn't get away with it.

This season has been typical and atypical Munster. They nearly always show pragmatism in securing losing bonus points in away games. But the decision to turn down the penalty in the end game against Saracens in Allianz Park in December and instead kick for touch resulted in Munster coming away with nothing but horrible regret (in what was their performance of the season so far) and left them deeper in the hole they find themselves staring out of going to Paris this weekend.

So with the Christmas decorations barely boxed away, Munster's European season is set to come to an end if they don't beat Racing 92. The instability of their position is heightened by how stable their rivals Leinster and Ulster currently are.

After Ulster's home win over La Rochelle in January 2017, former captain Rory Best warned about false dawns: "I think if we're talking about consistency and I say we've found the answer after one win, it might be part of the problem".

The way they performed in their Champions Cup quarter-final defeat to Leinster last season has been a point of difference for Ulster but they've also added a consistency this season. And Leinster? Well, there's everyone else's idea of consistency and then there's Leinster's.

Any talk of patience around Munster can be met with immediate impatience. It's equally okay to say that it would be a failure for Munster not to make the quarter-finals of Europe and also point to the mitigating factors in their season with senior coach Stephen Larkham only in his job since the summer and Graham Rowntree only landing after Georgia's Rugby World Cup finished.

Johann van Graan had to play by the IRFU rulebook and rest international players for the Christmas derbies although that doesn't excuse senior international players playing like they just didn't want to be at Ravenhill last weekend which resulted in criticism from former players including ex-forwards coach Jerry Flannery.

But there are also mitigating factors to the mitigating factors - Munster's pool might have been a tough one but their failure to pick up more points has been thoroughly self-inflicted.

And then the new year hammer blow. The news that Joey Carbery will be out for two to four months with a wrist injury made you want to throw the duvet over the rest of Munster's season.

There is little else as cruel about professional sport as the concern that a player might not be able to fulfil his/her potential because of injury.

Watching JJ Hanrahan train on his own away from the rest of the squad in UL on Wednesday as he tried to recover from a hamstring injury wouldn't exactly fill you with confidence that he can be 100 per cent match fit. He's in the starting team, but it's been far from an ideal build-up for a game that will define Munster's season.

I asked Van Graan on Wednesday if, between it all, this has been the toughest period in his time with Munster. He shrugged it off with his usual show of optimism, although he has notably dampened the kind of war-cry rhetoric he used at the beginning of his time in charge.

In the week of their Champions Cup quarter-final against Toulon two years ago, van Graan tried to light the fuse with lines about his players like: "I haven't heard of heroes who were born in times of peace" and "you want to go to war with warriors. I saw warriors this morning and everyone is ready to go".

There's a genuineness about van Graan which make his words less corny than how they might appear in print. That weekend Munster were on the verge of being knocked out when they were 19-13 down in the 75th minute.

Then Andrew Conway produced one of the most stunning solo tries in the history of Munster rugby to help clinch a one-point win. There is nothing as dangerous as a fire you think has gone out and Munster should be able to stoke that again this weekend.

Or maybe that's just useless old romanticism. The reality of the rest of that story is that Munster went on to lose the semi-final to their old mates Racing, which was their sixth semi-final defeat since last lifting the trophy in 2008. Afterwards, O'Mahony said he was "tired of losing semi-finals".

And that's the thing about this Munster team. Time is running out on more than a European season. It will be nine years ago this May since they last lifted a trophy when they beat newly-crowned Heineken Cup champions Leinster 19-9 in the Magners League final at Thomond Park in 2011.

Conor Murray and Keith Earls started that day and are the only players left who will also start for Munster against Racing tomorrow (Donnacha Ryan also started in the back row for Munster that day).

O'Mahony was officially made Munster captain in July 2013 after Doug Howlett retired which makes this his seventh season as captain. He'll be 31 in September.

He's never won a winner's medal or lifted a trophy with Munster (he has, of course, with Ireland). Before the Lions game against the Maori All Blacks on the 2017 Lions Tour, O'Mahony - as captain - told the players: "It's not about being selfish today, it's about being selfless".

That sounds nice and all, but there's also times when you need to be ruthlessly selfish. Because time's ticking on more than just a European season.

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