Munster find their feet in bonus territory


FROM THE BLINDSLIDE:There’s an art to to claiming a bonus-point victory and while Munster took their time getting there against Edinburgh, the win could be a watershed, writes ALAN QUINLAN

WITH 10 minutes to go in Munster’s match against Edinburgh on Sunday, I was tearing my hair out. I couldn’t understand the lack of urgency on the pitch or the way they just seemed to be going through the motions. The game was won a long time at that point – Munster were 16-0 up and Edinburgh weren’t coming back at them at all – but where was the drive for more tries? Why weren’t Munster going at it hammer and tongs for a bonus point?

When Peter O’Mahony went over for the second try, there were only nine minutes left on the clock. But instead of everybody sprinting back to the halfway line and getting ready to go again, they were all high-fiving and slapping each other’s backs. I was nearly screaming at them to cop on.

Saracens were sitting on the top of the table with nine points after winning on Saturday but they had left the door open a little bit by not scoring a fourth try. This is going to be a very tight group and Munster will need every little edge they can get.

There isn’t always a bonus point going in every game but as soon as Conor Murray scored the first try, this was definitely one.

But Munster didn’t seem to realise that it was on. Or if they did, it took them a long time to really go after it. I was watching Ian Keatley go through his routine over the conversion after O’Mahony’s try and I was going, “Just hurry up with it!”

The game was won at 21-0 so the conversion didn’t really matter. What mattered was getting the game restarted and going for the jugular.

You could see that there was far more enthusiasm in them once Seán Dougall got the third try and they deserve a lot of credit for getting there in the end. But you’d be amazed at how different that dressingroom would have felt afterwards if it had only finished 28-0 instead of 33-0.

There is an art to playing bonus-point rugby and it’s not always obvious to people looking in from the outside. It was probably no accident that when they were all high-fiving after O’Mahony’s try on Sunday, there was no O’Gara, O’Connell or Howlett on the pitch. It can take younger players a little bit of time to catch on to what’s needed, to realise this is on.

That’s how it was with us when we were coming through with Munster. I don’t think we properly grasped how to go about it until we were a few campaigns down the line. It took us a while to realise that it’s about breaking the game down into segments and building up domination over the opposition. It’s about not doing anything stupid early on and not forcing big, wild passes that aren’t there or running the ball from your own line.

It’s probably a cliché at this stage that no coach sends you out to get a bonus-point win from the off but it’s true. The only time I ever remember going into a game and talking about a bonus point in the build-up was the Gloucester match in 2003 when we needed to win by a certain amount and take a bonus point. None of us were all that sure what the points total was but we did know we needed to score four tries. By that stage we knew how to go about it.

Young players learn by doing. Funny enough, the one game that stands out for me was a win over Saracens in Thomond Park in 2000, a few years before bonus points were even introduced. That was the game where Saracens went six points ahead with only about three minutes left on the clock and we needed a converted try to win.

Mick Galwey got us together and said, ‘Right, we are going to go up the other end and we’re going to get a try. We’re not going to panic but we’re going to go for it with everything we have’. Keith Wood and John Langford went around saying similar things: ‘Control the tempo but keep it high. Be precise with the ball but go forward with enthusiasm and intensity when you have it. Don’t lose faith. This will happen’.

And it did. Woody got the try from a line-out and Rog kicked the conversion. We won 31-30. I’ll never forget the glow in the dressingroom afterwards, that realisation that came over some of us younger players that there is this way of going about things that will get the job done. I wouldn’t be able to count the amount of times over the years the lessons of that few minutes at the end of the Saracens game stood to us.

We learned that it wasn’t always about playing amazing rugby. It was about doing the right thing at the right time, upping your work-rate at crucial stages and showing the opposition that you knew you could overpower them.

Above all, it was about patience and belief. For those few minutes, even though Saracens had come to Limerick and put 30 points on us, we still made them feel like the game might slip away from them. That’s a massive thing, to be able to put that doubt in their mind.

Because going for a bonus point can be as much a mental thing as a physical thing. The one factor that will make your job a lot easier is if you can demoralise the other team. It’s vital that you drain their enthusiasm – that’s what coaches always mean by going out and winning the game first.

Make it so that a few of their team start to fall off tackles or only half-chase down kicks. Bounce up out of tackles and show you’re only dying to make another one. Convince them you’re not going to let up.

Every game has segments that you target. You want a fast start. You want to dominate just after half-time. More often than not, getting a bonus point will come down to the last 10 minutes of the game. With any luck, you’ll be far enough ahead by that stage that the opposition has nothing to play for because a losing bonus point is out of range for them. But that won’t always be the case so you have to concentrate and you have to believe.

Body language is a big thing here. In the last 10 minutes of games, you’re tired and sore but you can’t show it. You can’t encourage the other crowd and you can’t put doubt in the mind of your team-mates. So your body language has to be all about making the next tackle or hitting the next ruck, you have to be full of enthusiasm for the next bit of contact or the next carry. It sounds stupid but it might even just be the look in your eye that a team-mate catches. It’s all positive energy.

Build phases at pace, be resilient each time you are knocked back, wear the opposition down. At home, the crowd will react to any bit of progress you make so you use that as well. They won’t carry you over the line but they’ll make the whole experience a lot less pleasant for the team that’s trying to keep you out. Put it all together and you’ll find the momentum building to a point where that last try becomes inevitable. That’s the idea anyway.

You’ve seen this in all the teams that have won the Heineken Cup and who come back year after year in the competition. Leinster, Toulouse, Clermont all do it. They stay patient, they keep believing and they trust themselves to keep doing the right thing. Even when they’re under the cosh and the other team is having a purple patch, they don’t let the game drift away from them. And when they get their opportunities, they’re ruthless. Even if they have to wait until the 80th minute for it.

There’s nothing like coming off the field having got the bonus point with the last play of the game. It gives the whole squad an injection of confidence, that knowledge that when you absolutely had to pull something out of the fire, you went and did it.

Even though they were beating Edinburgh fairly handily on Sunday, you could see that Munster team was getting frustrated and the crowd were starting to niggle at them. The only reason for it was that it looked like the bonus point was going to be beyond them. That’s why I couldn’t understand the lack of urgency after O’Mahony’s try.

Okay, there were 71 minutes on the clock by that stage but Edinburgh were losing interest and two more tries in nine minutes is always possible against a beaten team. It wasn’t until Denis Hurley came sprinting in after Dougall’s try that you could see them copping on as a team to the fact that this was possible now.

They would have been totally deflated at the end if they hadn’t got the bonus point. It might seem mad to say that about what would have been a 28-0 win over last year’s Heineken Cup semi-finalists but that would have been the reality of it. It would have been an opportunity lost in a situation where Edinburgh were there for the taking.

Getting there in the end is something that will stand to them so much in the future. I guarantee you that one day down the line some of those young guys will point to last Sunday as a big moment in their development. Coming through those last 10 minutes, getting the bonus point, doing what was needed when it was needed – that was massive stuff. Now, instead of old pains in the arse like me going on about how they couldn’t get the bonus point without O’Connell and O’Gara and Howlett on the pitch, the story is how they were able to do it on their own.

The ground it out and stuck at it right to the death and now they go forward into the rest of the competition with Saracens in their sights and within reach. It looked for a while they might let it slip through their fingers but they grabbed it in the end. They can high-five all they like now.

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