Gordon D’Arcy: Munster on track but Leinster at another level
Munster have all the motivation they need and must continue pushing to knock Leinster
Leinster’s Jack Conan, Cian Healy and Scott Fardy in action with Charlie Faumuina of Toulouse during their victory at the RDS. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
Mark Twain wasn’t much of a rugby enthusiast but his quote, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes” rings true to our sport.
I thought as much standing pitch side at the RDS on Saturday watching the champions of Europe reach another level. The Channel 4 set-up provides ex-players/pundits with an important perspective (my scarf providing colleagues with plenty of fodder).
Seeing Toulouse shoulders sag I remembered when the feeling was reversed. That’s where the famous French club currently exist – they are contenders again, and this also relates to Munster the night before in Gloucester; both teams have similar traits to Leinster in the mid-2000s. Before the flood of trophies.
Sure, Munster and Toulouse possess a history we could only dream about back then, with six European titles between them, but that means nothing in the context of recent seasons. The current teams have no medals to show the grandkids, nothing to reinvigorate historically elite organisations. Nothing to compare with gold stars embroidered on their jerseys.
It may take a few more attempts to knock Leinster off their perch but they are on the right track while other clubs struggle to find any sort of coherent path at all.
The psyche of those in search of silverware is something my generation of Leinster player would understand. We had some success with Ireland before the 2009 Grand Slam; Triple Crowns and a Celtic League Cup, but fell short of major titles and usually in circumstances when we naively believed we were ready, only to painfully discover there was a long way still to travel.
Munster players understand what I mean. Toulouse are beginning to realise experiences like Saturday in Dublin have to happen as much as we needed to be thumped in Limerick and the south of France.
You always have a choice: keep repeating the same preparation and accept the beatings as your lot in life, or learn and evolve. Watching the impact made by Joey Carbery and Tadhg Beirne this season, with last Friday night in Kingsholm as good an example as any, it seems like Munster have added the necessary pieces to a puzzle that left them feeling cold when losing the 2017 Pro12 final to Scarlets, and all those semi-finals Peter O’Mahony is sick to the teeth talking about.
Leinster experienced a similar change in mentality when Rocky Elsom and Isa Nacewa were added to our ranks in 2008. That Munster’s newest men are Irish internationals only adds to their overall value and shows how far the system has progressed.
I get where Munster are at. I understand their pain, the motivation that drives them every day to get better, and it is clear that they only need to take a few more steps in their current trajectory before they are 80 minutes away from grabbing hold of a trophy last captured in 2008.
Eleven years of waiting is a very long time in sport. They have had to completely alter how they go about playing and behaving under five different head coaches. We experienced similar problems from the Gary Ella season (2003/04) and it took several misfiring campaigns, along with coaching and player turnover before we were crowned European champions. It definitely starts away from the field.
Ulster are perhaps only realising this now. They must continue to rebuild their squad next summer, so victory over Racing 92 shouldn’t be seen as anything more than it was – a flawed but courageous home result. They remain heavily reliant on five or six players and while they can afford to lose one, even two, John Cooney and Iain Henderson, the likes of Will Addison, Jacob Stockdale, Jordi Murphy and Rory Best need to be on the field for every big game. The strain on their understrength squad will only be evident in April.
Dan McFarland’s primary role this season is to grow a collective belief system.
Consistently high levels of performance always stem from the same source – a team’s internal culture.
Toulouse are the same, more advanced than Ulster if slightly adrift of Munster’s rising stock. They came to the toughest place in Europe to win a rugby game and left completely knackered but with valuable lessons.
I suspect they will grow from the experience (like Munster have since last season’s semi-final defeat to Racing 92).
You see plenty watching pitch side. The champions were so clever in how they coped with the diagonally blowing gale.
Injuries across the board made it seem like a real opportunity for Toulouse but the quality of Leinster’s coaching staff to construct a very simple plan proved the difference.
I don’t think people fully understand how hard it is to keep 70 per cent possession for 40 minutes while running into a head wind. Toulouse barely touched the ball in the first half. They celebrated a turnover after 40-odd phases like it was points on the board but they were too wrecked, from all the defending, to construct a multi-phase attack of their own.
The kicking option was almost completely removed from the equation. Only Luke McGrath at scrumhalf could put boot to ball and only when he was near the left touchline. The wind was that strong. Think about the levels of discipline required, and look who delivered for Leinster: Rhys Ruddock and Jack Conan relentlessly carried with immaculate ball presentation (a clear improvement from the Munster loss).
Jordan Larmour’s cleanout on Yoann Huget, two phases before Conan’s try, was straight from the Fergus McFadden school of excellence. When Garry Ringrose threw the big pass over the top for Adam Byrne to step inside Maxime Medard something clicked in Larmour’s brain: there is no offload here, so he pivoted two steps sideways to shunt Huget’s body up and over the ball. This guaranteed crisp possession for Ruddock to make another dent and Toulouse’s red wall crumbled when Conan arrived at pace.
The wind advantage was negated by Leinster because Toulouse couldn’t get the ball. That’s down to constant accuracy at the breakdown. It’s the blueprint for modern, winning rugby.
Preparation for this game screamed clarity. Everyone knew their job, keeping the ball being the overriding tactic, but it was a day for McFadden, Sean O’Brien, Jack McGrath – that sort of player – to roll up the sleeves and get stuck in. All three of them, and a probable four Ireland starters against England on February 2nd were spectators like the rest of us.
No problem. Rory O’Loughlin and Larmour filled the jerseys. Ross Byrne carried into heavy traffic again and again, instead of flinging the 50/50 pass into the wind. Dave Kearney and Adam Byrne are hardly new to this environment but they delivered when their opportunities arrived. Such names carried the club forward. Here was a powerful culture in full bloom.
Everyone on the outside looking in was worried about history rhyming yet Leinster coped without eight major contributors (James Lowe being suspended) three and half years after Ireland failed to perform without five key men in a World Cup quarter-final.
I was excited to see the future of Toulouse rugby, Thomas Ramos and Romain Ntamack, up close but this young duo were blown away. Their presence suggests a return to old values, the growing of talent through their academy, but this takes time.
Again, the RDS should prove a highly informative exercise for the French club. I saw something else at pitch level. How Leinster carry into contact, or how they seek to avoid collisions when possible, is how rugby saves itself. Toulouse’s 120kg men could not get big shots on most Leinster carriers because of subtle steps and swerves before the tackle. This requires hours upon hours of coaching and individual player work. The ability of Cian Healy and Conan in particular to move the point of contact was fantastic. See their crucial steps in or out or through the tackle to make it easier for the incoming two cleaners.
Coaches all over Ireland can show Saturday’s opening 40 minutes to their teams when facing a bigger pack. The virtuous circle in all its glory.
Munster were not as inhibited by conditions in Gloucester so after two or three phases of heavy contact Carbery could attempt a strike play. They will have a tougher time of it Saturday against Exeter, and without O’Mahony, but I say this with a straight face: there are plenty of similarities from this Munster group to our Leinster team up until May 2009. Their culture, as reflected by recent performances, grows stronger.
We took so much from beating Munster in games that didn’t really matter. We discovered our true potential under Michael Cheika when Isa, Rocky and CJ van der Linde arrived. In Carbery, Beirne and Farrell the pieces now look to be in place.
They might have to find a way past Leinster but belief won’t be a problem after what we witnessed over Christmas.
They would have been deeply affected by Bilbao last May the same way Leinster players squirmed watching Axel and Paulie lift the European Cup. Mould your nemesis into your greatest motivational tool. It’s about getting to where you feel you are good enough to be regardless of what obstacles are placed in your path. Rugby’s history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.