Subscriber OnlyRugby

When Munster are at their best they believe that the universe is against them

This type of mindset has brought back Munster’s killer pride in performing at Thomond Park to once again make it a fortress

As Leinster's purgatory continues, Munster are cruising along life’s highway while bopping along to Graham Rowntree’s version of Kumbaya. Photograph: Tom Maher/Inpho

On a painful day in an austere changing room, we flopped on to the bench seats, having just lost a club final by the narrowest of margins. Our coach told us how proud he was of our season of highs that had just ended so low. In our collective pain, his words floated aimlessly by us.

Such is the compulsory binary of knock-out rugby. Joy or despair.

I was sitting next to our old grizzled prop. The salt of the earth type of player who you loved to walk out with each week. A no-nonsense man in all aspects of his life. He was sitting eyes downcast, not knowing how to start processing his heartache. He was giving his dirty boots the death stare, when in reality he was just like the rest of us, trying to find the starting point to begin the mourning of our collective dream.

As our coach fumbled for his words, the old prop mumbled to himself, “Shut up. We lost.” The coach was not supposed to hear those words. The old prop was talking to himself but in the silence of a defeated change room, the statement echoed off the cold concrete floor and into every ear. Our coach had played many times for our club. He was a good man and a good coach. He understood.


Nigel Carolan, the Galway man plotting a hole through Munster's defence

Listen | 33:55

He was not offended. He walked over and placed a kindly hand of solidarity on the prop’s shoulder and said, “I know mate. You are right. We lost.” And not another word was uttered.

Words cannot heal the emotional pain of defeat.

Leinster are in that exact same situation, except the URC has provided them with an opportunity to exorcise those demons of defeat with an immediate shot at redemption. It is an opportunity that cuts both ways. There is the possibility of redemption and the reality of another shattering defeat.

Leinster’s Ryan Baird dejected as he walks past the Champions Cup. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Losing multiple Champions Cup finals and URC semi-finals does not make Leinster a poor team. Nor does it make them failures in any way, shape or form. But it has damaged them. Be it emotional or psychological, what they have been through changes people.

This excellent Leinster team are now in a type of rugby purgatory. They are not damned to the eternal pain of the vast majority of teams, who simply never make a final let alone win one. Yet they have been denied the glorious joys of lifting a trophy as a reward for their staggering efforts across several seasons.

Say what you like about Leinster’s failure to win in finals but their drive to be there at the top end of yet another competition takes buckets of courage. That demands our admiration.

Leinster’s only hope of being sprung from purgatory and finding salvation is winning. While the opportunity to play at the legendary Loftus Versfeld is the perfect preparation for Ireland’s first Test against the Springboks at the same stadium in July, the hazards of performing at 4,393 feet above sea level in the oxygen depleted air of the Highveld will be hugely challenging.

Away from home, after a long-haul flight, at altitude, against the cunning of Jake White’s leadership, fronted by an aggressively talented Bulls pack and yet, somehow, Leinster are facing another playoff game that, on paper, they should win.

Their purgatory continues.

While down Munster way, all are cruising along life’s highway, while bopping along to Graham Rowntree’s version of Kumbaya.

“Someone's praying Lord, let Munster win, oh Lord let Munster win.”

Gavin Coombes and Simon Zebo celebrate winning against Ospreys. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Recently, in the glorious southwest, the prestige of winning the URC has skyrocketed. And more power to them because it is high time Irish supporters stopped salivating at the mention of Champions Cup and gave our domestic competition the importance it deserves. Winning the URC is not a consolation prize. It is a prestigious multinational competition that now outranks Super Rugby. Munster’s form in finishing top of the table has been an exceptional return to their grand traditions of grit and determination.

While Glasgow, under the thoughtful coaching of Franco Smith, have performed with great skill this season and deserve to be regarded as part of the competition’s elite, last weekend’s comments by the former Scotland prop Peter Wright, are not what the coach would have wanted to be heard in Limerick a week before a semi-final. Wright said: “It will be good to go there [Thomond] and beat them in their own backyard... because they hate us – Glasgow and Munster hate each other massively.”

We all know that is a misrepresentation of reality and an oversimplification. Munster don’t just hate Glasgow. They hate everyone. In return, as karma enforces, everyone hates them back. That’s Munster’s shtick and it works.

When Munster are at their best they believe that the universe is against them. This type of mindset has brought back Munster’s killer pride in performing at Thomond Park to once again make it a fortress, with Jack Crowley in fine form and calling the on-field tunes, in the stands the Red Army will be belting out Zombie.

All of which makes Munster a very difficult team to beat at home.

This weird mixture may be enough to confuse an excellent Glasgow team and see Munster playing for a second consecutive URC trophy on home soil next weekend.

If Leinster manage to navigate their perilous path to victory at Loftus Versfeld and set up a URC final against Munster, after return long-haul flights from South Africa, then the men in blue might find themselves in the unusual position of being underdogs in a final against their oldest of foes.

Matt Williams

Matt Williams

Matt Williams, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a professional rugby coach, writer, TV presenter and broadcaster