Varley maintains the Munster game plan hasn’t changed
Hooker admits his pack will have to match Clermont’s powerful scrum
Such is the prestige of the Heineken Cup and their umbilical affinity with it that, in many ways, Munster salvaged their season in one game. That stunning, emotional upset victory away to Harlequins three weeks ago earned them a first semi-final in three years, and so they are rubbing shoulders with Europe’s elite again. The Red Army is on the march once more and all is, however briefly or not, right in their world.
In the process, a fairly dismal Rabo PRO12 League season by their standards – arguably the three-time champions’ worst ever League campaign – has been masked over. This is in stark contrast to two seasons ago, when winning the League failed to gloss over the painful failure to advance to the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup for the first time since 1998, or even last season, when a League semi-final thrashing away to the Ospreys merely compounded the seismic Heineken Cup quarter-final loss at home to Ulster.
Yet amidst a singularly trying campaign, there have been few more staunch defenders of the faith, and by extension the Rob Penney way, than Damien Varley, and the Munster hooker revived that hoary old chestnut in maintaining that the quarter-final was not a one-off.
“I actually think we’ve put in some extremely good performances where we have gotten victories but we haven’t got the credit because maybe people have been over-focused on Rob Penney’s game plan and people saying that it didn’t suit us.
“Before the Harlequins game we had a good Heineken Cup campaign, put ourselves in position to be in the quarter-final and it was only from then on that people rowed in and started to say, ‘yes, this is like the Munster of old’.”
Notions of Munster being a one-dimensional, forward-orientated team who suddenly morphed into a running outfit this season are way too simplistic in any case. Recall the wonderful tries under a burning Bordeaux sun – one run from a scrum just outside their 22 through several rapid-fire phases and gloriously finished off by Ronan O’Gara to beat Toulouse 31-25 in the 2000 semi-final. That’s 13 years ago.
Yet against Halrequins it looked as if Munster had reverted to more direct, Cup-tie rugby, echoing the opening salvos away to Racing in round one and at home to Edinburgh a week later, with Paul O’Connell’s force of personality and performance again giving his team a more traditional focal point.
“No it hasn’t changed, the game plan still exists the way it has,” maintained Varley. “The game evolved against Harlequins in such a way that we mauled more and that was just what we had to do given our opponents and what they were throwing at us on that day. The game plan as we’ve been playing all year is still there and it’s still the way we’re going to operate for the rest of the season.”
On their last semi-final appearance, ala Leinster in Toulouse the day before, Munster were blown away at scrum time in San Sebastien by Biarritz. With the destructive Thomas Domingo at loosehead, his fellow French incumbent and scrum devotee Benjamin Kayser at hooker and Georgain Davit Zirakashvili at tighthead, there must be a fear of a reprise, all the more so with a grizzled all-international frontrow on the bench.
“They scrummage particularly well. They’re big guys, they’re very physical, like all French teams they take scrummaging extremely seriously,” admitted Varley. “I’m not saying we don’t but they have a wealth of experience and we’ll look at how they scrummage, what their little cues are and what we need to do to attack them in set piece.
“Size obviously isn’t everything,” he added with a laugh. “Scrummaging is power, it’s technique, it’s how you gel with the guys around you more than anything. So if you find a weak point in any place in the frontrow that isn’t gelling, you can target that and all of a sudden your whole scrum will disintegrate.”
Varley draws strength from Munster’s scrummaging in recent games and adds: “You can’t say a bigger guy has more power than a smaller guy, that’s not the case. I think we will have as much power as they do. We may not have the sheer bulk but we do have the power, and we certainly have the technique.”
Injury to Stephen Archer means that John Ryan will most likely be promoted to the bench, and Varley cites Ryan’s work ethic as indicative of the new wave making their mark this season.
“He has come on in a few games and proved his ability so if he gets a chance this weekend I think everyone involved will be comfortable with that. He’s a big man. Boris is his nickname and we often think he’s a foreign weightlifter, that tells you what we think of him.”