Time the new generation got used to life on the road
An away win tomorrow could be the making of this Munster team, writes GAVIN CUMMISKEY
“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Munster have been here before. Well, some of them have. Underdogs. Backs against the saloon wall. Stand up and fight or die on your knees.
The new Munster crop undoubtedly embraced the manic ferocity required to hand defeat to Saracens in Thomond Park last Saturday evening but what really elevated this club to its mythical status has been the success gained on their travels since the 2000 Heineken Cup campaign right up to winning their second title in 2008.
It was their ability to get the job done in the most unforgiving of environments.
The Red Army remembers the feats of Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell. John Hayes, Jerry Flannery, Donncha O’Callaghan, Alan Quinlan, David Wallace, Denis Leamy too. Only O’Gara and O’Callaghan remain for this latest journey over to England, this back-to-back duel with Saracens, part two at Vicarage Road tomorrow. All or nothing.
It already feels like a lifetime ago, but the aforementioned names have ransacked Kingsholm, Edgeley Park, the Ricoh Arena, Franklin’s Gardens, Twickenham and even England’s version of Thomond Park, Welford Road – when O’Gara famously backed up his words with his boot.
Of course, tomorrow is vastly different. Tomorrow is a different Munster team, playing a vastly different type of rugby but, as Jerry Flannery coherently explains, winning while embracing Rob Penney’s Canterbury-style rugby would elevate the current lot to a similar plain to their predecessors.
(Today’s Munster have already won in England – despite the scrum coughing up 14 points in penalty tries, Northampton were destroyed 51-36 at Stadium:mk last January).
“The only time they look impotent with the new game plan is when they go across the field and don’t actually attack,” said Flannery. “They’ve got to attack the middle of the field to narrow the defence.”
To create space out wide? “Dave Kilcoyne does this very well. When you watch the All Blacks, their forwards put on little micro plays in the middle of the field which are much harder for teams to defend.
“If you watch the Edinburgh game when Kilcoyne broke the first tackle, suddenly their defence became very narrow. One little break means the gaps become a lot bigger and then you got the likes of Earlsey to sit two players down and put someone else into a hole there.”
Earls’ loss to a groin strain is significant, especially considering his quick-footed, menacing threat on the gainline these past few weeks. Over to Casey Laulala. But Munster are still learning the Penney way. For the new system to thrive, Flannery believes, they must, quite simply, stay alive in Europe.
“If we had lost at home last week, considering all the new variables; new coach, new players, new style of play and if we had lost at home our season would have been in an awful bad way and people would have been questioning everything.
“The fact that we won and the Thomond thing – people are always questioning, ‘when is this thing going to stop? When are a team going to come over and just batter Munster, make them look very average at home?’, so I think the lads produced a huge performance. They made Saracens look very average.
“They are going to take a lot from that, confidence-wise, going over but I think is based on doing the small things really well.
“When I was there we always concentrated on getting set- piece right, do all the little things that you have to do, just concentrate on them and bring an intensity to it. Hopefully that will carry you through because you can’t be trying to force anything.”
Flannery is not one for bull. You saw it in the manner he played and now, in retirement, in the way he speaks about the game and his beloved former team.
“The Thomond factor is a big thing and it draws big performances out of people. You could have stuck any of the lads in the squad in and I think you would have got it out of them.
“Look at the Munster All Blacks game from a few years ago. I just feel if we can stay alive in the competition we’ll keep improving month on month.
“The lads stood up to it, clearly they have bought into the Munster standards, because if they weren’t up to it we’d suddenly be in a bad place. People, supporters, would start to question the game plan then and these young players, who haven’t had time to really bed down in the team, would be getting their abilities questioned as well. It was real reaffirming last weekend.”
It is a revenge mission now for Saracens. An English team littered with Springboks and English internationals that were made look decidedly average in Limerick. That is, until the last 15 minutes.
“It did seem a bit surreal at the end when Saracens were applauding and walking off the field with a real sense of confidence. I know from fellas who have been at Saracens there is a very different culture or mentality than there would be at Munster. It is a very relaxed, jokey, fun place to be and I suppose in Munster we always feel you should play with a bit of bitterness, that attitude all the time. Maybe they don’t have that as much.
“I think you have to keep an open mind. Maybe they don’t feel embarrassed going back having lost as they are so confident in their own abilities coming into this weekend.”
Flannery then makes a huge leap; Munster, this Munster, can win the tournament.
“Sometimes people look at the young guys and think they don’t have the pedigree to win but that’s because they don’t know the players.
“Barry Murphy made a really good point to me recently. If you go back to 2005/’06 team that won the Heineken Cup, I don’t know if that was the best team in Europe. We played the Dragons back to back and very nearly lost in Thomond Park.
Odds are stacked
“We didn’t have any world beaters but players grow as the tournament goes on. You see it happening with Dave O’Callaghan, Dave Kilcoyne and Mike Sherry. I know that Munster could win a Heineken Cup, I know these boys could do it. The odds are stacked heavily against them but they could do it. I know just how good these players could be.”
For now, all they must do is survive on the road. Because the road is life.
“I’m still going to back Munster but it is going to be a real test. If they can do this they will have made a massive step up, equivalent to Ulster beating us last year in Thomond Park . The belief levels for the young lads will go through the roof.”