It’s silly to say Munster have no pressure on them just because they’re underdogs
Alan Quinlan says this Heineken Cup semi-final won’t be about throwing caution to the wind – it has to be about winning
Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne celebrates his try against Toulouse in the quarter-final. “Munster have a handful of young guys who can change everything if they grab their chance on Saturday. Dave Kilcoyne, Dave Foley, Tommy O’Donnell, Ian Keatley – these are the kind of guys who have to do it.” Photograph: Inpho
All week you will hear people talking about the job Munster have on their hands against Toulon this weekend. Somewhere along the way, you are almost certain to hear somebody – maybe a player, maybe a coach, maybe a pundit – say that because Munster are going to France as such huge underdogs, they have no pressure on them. Don’t believe a word of it.
Of all the sports cliches, I never believed that one. I’ve played in games where we were favourites and in games where we were underdogs: trust me, there’s less pressure when you’re playing for the better team. There is massive pressure on any team going into a game where the opposition are packed with superstars or have a passionate home crowd behind them or both.
It’s the pressure of knowing that winning is going to be so difficult, that the thing your season has been built around could come to an end. Or worse, it’s the pressure of knowing if you don’t perform, this could get very ugly. It’s the pressure of realising unless you go out and hold to the game plan and get a bit of luck along the way, you could be on the wrong side of a hiding.
First and foremost, these games are about winning. The pressure you feel going into any game has to be all to do with getting the right result. If you’re going in with the attitude “Well, sure nobody expects us to win anyway”, then I don’t think you’ve got the right mentality.
You have to put pressure on yourself. It can’t be coming from outside. The pressure you feel going into a big game shouldn’t be anything to do with living up to the expectations of people outside your dressing room. Pressure is partly nerves, partly a fear of not performing, partly a hatred of not winning. Those should be constant, regardless of whether you are favourites or underdogs.
Saying you’re going in with no pressure on you is basically saying there’s an excuse. The worst thing Munster could be thinking this week would be that as long as they go to France and give a good account of themselves, nobody will be too harsh on them because nobody expects them to win.
In a week like this, you have two choices as a player. You can go and do your best, safe in the knowledge that even your best might not be good enough, or you can decide that this is your chance to do something wonderful that will be remembered forever. No top player will take the first option.
That’s not to say they won’t tell the outside world that all the pressure is on Toulon. But that’s pure deflection. People might see it as a way of keeping the pressure off your own team or ramping it up on the opposition, but it’s just a red herring. It doesn’t mean anything and it doesn’t have any effect, other than maybe a few headlines.
You have your own pressure. It comes from within – and it’s a good thing. You want pressure, you want to give yourself a shot at competing. You want those nerves, you want that fear. It helps you focus and get your head into the right place so that you go into the game in no doubt as to what’s required.
This idea that being underdog means you can throw caution to the wind is nonsense. Throwing caution to the wind is playing as if there are no consequences. It’s what you do when you are three tries down in the second half and you’ve tried everything else.
There certainly are consequences for Munster if they don’t turn up with the right focus and mindset this weekend – they will lose. Worse again, they might lose heavily.
Let’s not pretend that isn’t a possibility. Toulon are an exceptional side with great players and awesome size all across the pitch. If they make a good start and get on a roll, they have the capability to put a big score on Munster. There’s probably plenty of people who expect that to happen.
But Munster have been underdogs before many times, so this is nothing new. I played for them for 14 years and I was always intrigued about what the X-factor was that made it so difficult to write Munster off. I often thought about it. What was that? What drove that?
What I put it down to was hunger and will to win. “Will to win” is one of those phrases that gets tossed around so much it nearly loses its meaning. But it’s so important. You’re not going out in games just to do yourself justice. You’re not going out to try your best and get a pat on the back afterwards for doing the jersey proud. You’re going out to win.
It doesn’t matter what the expectations are or what the opposition are bringing into the game. It’s about going out and beating them, regardless. Find a way, tear up the script, do the unexpected.
You are underdogs based on what people think your limits are. But they don’t know your limits. For that matter, you don’t know your limits. Sportspeople all over the world surprise themselves every day with what they’re capable of when they push themselves. They go beyond what they think they can achieve.
I think that’s probably what carried Munster teams of the past to where they got to. It was understanding that we maybe didn’t have the same level of talent that other big clubs had and realising the best way to make up for that was to be constantly pushing what we thought our limits were.
In training or in matches, it was always about doing more.
That’s the sort of pressure I’m talking about. It has nothing to do with the outside world, or bookies’ odds, or the predictions of experts. It’s taking what you think are your limits and exceeding them, setting new limits and then exceeding those as well. If people think there’s no pressure on Munster this weekend, they’re looking at it completely the wrong way.
Apart from anything else, it’s six years since they won a Heineken Cup semi-final. Of the team that will start on Saturday, only Paul O’Connell knows what that feels like. They came close last year in more or less the same circumstances. Away in France against a team with a huge budget and hostile fans. Sink or swim time.
If Munster are to beat Toulon, it won’t be because O’Connell did it for them. He will be a leader but they need far more than him. That next generation of Munster players have to be the ones who do it. I underestimated some of them before the quarter-final against Toulouse, but they must back it up and take control of the game.
They’re not that young or inexperienced. Those excuses aren’t there anymore. People think they’re good players in general but assume they don’t have enough about them to go and challenge Toulon. It’s up to them to break that perception.
Everything changes for a team when young guys step forward to take on the responsibility. It’s a vital point in the life of any top team. When those players go to the next level, they change the atmosphere.
Suddenly you have older players really believing they have a chance because now they know they can depend on the younger guys. Better than that, they can push the limits of what’s possible that bit more. By far the best example is Brian O’Driscoll in Paris. After that, the older Irish players saw greater possibilities than had been there before.
It’s not easy. When you’re young and you come into a group, you’re nervous as hell. You keep your head down and your mouth shut, even though that’s not necessarily the best thing to do. You can spend too long being like that, too afraid to overstep the mark while you’re working on building up your own self-confidence.
That’s okay for a while but eventually the team is going to need you to be a leader. They will need you to step out of your comfort zone. It goes back to that thing of not knowing your limits until it’s demanded of you that you go beyond them.
When I started playing with Munster and later Ireland, it took me a long time to realise playing at that level had to be about more than just doing the simple things well and following the lead of the older guys. It was when Declan Kidney started to get onto me about being more confident in myself and expressing myself a bit more I really began to develop.
Munster have a handful of young guys who can change everything if they grab their chance on Saturday. Dave Kilcoyne, Dave Foley, Tommy O’Donnell, Ian Keatley – these are the kind of guys who have to do it. This is such a great chance for them.
I don’t expect them to win – nobody does. But so what? They won’t be a bit worried what anyone thinks. All that matters is the pressure they put on themselves and how they react to it.