Thursday 14 December 2017

Perpignan pride should cripple a weakening Munster

Fans must face facts -- the bandwagon is coming to an end, says George Hook

George Hook

George Hook

The consistent link amongst sports fans of every code has been a united front in support of England's opponents. Soccer fans have been particularly one-eyed in seeing no contradiction in following Arsenal, Liverpool or Manchester United while heaping abuse on many of those same club players when representing their country.

So too with the commentators; Barnes of rugby, Motson of soccer and Coleman of athletics invariably have their comments treated with derision as nationalistic and self-serving.

The recent past has indicated that we Irish are not totally pure in these matters. The 'Henry affair' indicated that we believe only the dastardly foreigner to be capable of cheating. Meanwhile, ferocious tackles by Brian O'Driscoll are treated differently to tackles on O'Driscoll. Shane Jennings has been found guilty and Shane Horgan apparently had no case to answer to hands in the face and not necessarily the eyes of opponents. Yet Julien Dupuy's sentence is greeted by nodding assent that it was time that this cancer in the game was ended.

Similarly, any suggestion that the Munster bandwagon was coming to an end was greeted with derision. This week, however, there has been a subtle change as former players rather than the cynical pundits were suggesting that not only might Munster lose to Perpignan, but fail to get a bonus point in the process. Were such a scenario to come to pass, then it could mark, for the first time in 10 years, the end of their Heineken Cup bid before the knockout stages.

Munster's failings at scrum, lineout and in midfield have been well documented and hardly bear repetition, other than to wonder how Tony McGahan could watch last week's match and not take some remedial action.

If McGahan's team fail to make it out of the group, then Jean de Villiers is set to become the most expensive failure since Christian Cullen. The combination of Keith Earls and Lifeimi Mafi failed to function and Ronan O'Gara never looked confident of releasing the ball.

The coach had one untried option and it was to pair the South African with the young tyro from Limerick. Ineffectual as De Villiers has been, Mafi has looked completely at sea and was a one-trick pony in attack. The Perpignan midfield of David Marty and Maxime Mermoz is, by contrast, a potent attacking force and might have been undone by an adoption of the all-up defence beloved of the world champions.

This week Munster face the task of competing with a team that has all the strengths and beliefs that made the Irish province great. Like Munster, the Catalans use the chip on their shoulder to fuel sporting success. During the Napoleonic Wars, much of Catalonia was seized by French forces by 1808. In France, strong policies integrated many Catalans into French society, while in Spain a Catalan identity was increasingly suppressed in favour of a national identity. It was not until 1975 and the death of Franco that the Catalans began to fully regain their right to their cultural expression, which was established by the Spanish Constitution of 1978.

No visitor to Barcelona can be unaware of the fierce pride of the Catalans in their language and culture. The flag of Catalonia, like the colours of Perpignan, consists of four red stripes on a golden background. It is also used on the captain's armband at FC Barcelona. Perpignan may be in France but Munster is playing a team that represents a people and a country.

The noise and colour in the Stade Aimé Giral will rival anything seen in Thomond Park and the locals have great faith that their team's opening 15-minute blitz, known locally as La Furia, will discommode their opponent's and deliver a victory. Since the double-header concept became part of the Heineken Cup, Perpignan has delivered six victories at home following six away defeats.

There is one smidgin of good news for Munster. Wian de Preez was called into the South African pack after it struggled against club sides Leicester and Saracens on the recent November tour. While not solving the problem entirely, the Cheetahs prop gave the Springbok scrum a solidity that was missing when Tendai Mtawarira was at loose head.

The scrum will be more crucial than any other phase in deciding, if not the result, then certainly the destination of the

bonus points. Both midfields will be trying to get across the gain line and know that a stable or, even better, a dominant scrum will give them the crucial "go forward" advantage.

There has been a suggestion that the lack of dynamic ball carriers has been at the root of the demise of Munster. That belief ignores the failings at both set pieces. Throwing to two at the lineout and retreating at the scrum has meant that much of Munster's activity goes on behind the gain line with the consequent diminution of space to carry from deep or with pace. The effectiveness of players like Denis Leamy has diminished in proportion to the reduction in control at the set piece.

The Perpignan flanker, 21-year-old Yohan Vivalda, was playing in only his tenth game for the club. He was scathing in his assessment of his opponents, "I didn't find Munster, who make up half the Irish team, very impressive," he said. He concluded that "they weren't really exceptional".

The truth sometimes comes from the mouths of babes and innocents. This afternoon, Vivalda will either be a chastened young man or a definite pundit for the future.

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