Saracens game is about belief overcoming doubts for Munster
Nerves bring pressure and it’s how you use that pressure that decide success and failure
Munster’s Simon Zebo and Chris Ashton of Saracens tussle for possession. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
For Munster, Saturday’s game against Saracens is do-or-die. It might always seem like the next game is do-or-die but actually, this isn’t a situation they’ve found themselves in too often at this point of European competition.
Lose on Saturday and they won’t have any hope going into the final game of the pool. I can only remember that happening once before, in the 2010/11 season.
For coaches, a week like this starts a good bit before the week even arrives. This is a game to target from a good distance out. In general, the season gets broken down into five-week blocks or six-week blocks and the coaches would have had this game in mind as they did their preparation for the league games over Christmas and in the New Year.
Europe is like an adrenaline shot to a club. It means more than the league, like it or not. The life went out of Ulster’s season after they lost those opening two games against Leicester and Toulon. Munster’s season will go the same way if they don’t beat Saracens this weekend. Trying to win the league won’t feel the same.
So everything is thrown at a week like this. Player rotation, rest, recovery. Holding back this player, putting in that one. Decisions about how heavy the load is on certain players, what sort of time off should they have, what type of training they should be doing.
Trying to make sure above all else that they got to this game with as many frontline players available and in form as possible.
Paul O’Connell didn’t travel to Zebre last weekend, for instance. Tommy O’Donnell had a very heavy workload through December and played in two derbies over Christmas but he didn’t go to Italy last weekend either so he could be kept fresh for this week. There’s lots of mixing and matching, all leading to facing Saracens in a game they can’t afford to lose.
Players can’t really afford to plan ahead to that same level. Everybody knows the importance of the Saracens game but looking too far ahead affects your performance from game to game. You are guided by your coaches, you do the work that is laid out for you. Your responsibility is to manage your own body so that you get to this week in top condition.
Win, and you give yourself a great chance with Sale at home in the final game. Lose, and you don’t even know what you’re going to be doing when you go in on Monday morning.
So, this is a week where the mental challenge is massive. You have to get yourself into the right frame of mind, which isn’t easy because there are two competing thoughts in your head. You believe you have a chance because you got that lifeline with the bonus point against Clermont. But at the same time, you have doubts because you have to be realistic.
Belief and doubt. One picks away at the other. Your job is to make sure that it’s belief that wins. Belief always has a slight advantage because your natural instinct is to want to think the best will happen. Any time you have a chance, there is always a positive energy about the squad. There’s that natural excitement of seeing a target up ahead and going for it.
The chip on the shoulder that we always talk about when it comes to Munster is really nothing more than belief winning out over doubt. It’s deciding that the reasons people have to be dubious about the chances of a win aren’t enough to stop it happening.
It’s getting annoyed that those people – some of them even within the squad or set-up itself – are dubious in the first place. It’s convincing yourself that you’re better than people think.
The more you do that, the more you enjoy it. I loved the back-against-the-wall stuff. The more people wrote us off, the more we fancied ourselves. It’s actually not a logical way of thinking but in a week like this, that doesn’t matter. You’re doing what you can to get yourself into the right frame of mind.
But you have to deal in reality too. There’s a difference between convincing yourself you can win and fooling yourself about it. You are trying to build confidence but you are constantly reminding yourself of the implications of the challenge you are facing. You are nervous because you know there are things that you have to get right and those nerves lead to pressure.
That’s what a week like this is about – learning what to do with that pressure. If you can turn pressure into excitement and adrenaline and, you will be on the right track.
That year we went to Toulon needing a win in Round Five, the fact that we’d beaten them already in Thomond Park was what we latched onto. We’d given them a good hiding too, 45-18. But the problem was we’d lost away to London Irish and away to Ospreys. The London Irish defeat was bad but it wasn’t the end of the world. After the Ospreys defeat, we had no wiggle room against Toulon.
Had to win
One of the things you touch on in the week of a big game is experience. It’s one of the building blocks of confidence and belief. We’ve been in this position before and here’s what we learned from it. But we had nothing to reference that week. It wasn’t the reason we lost but it didn’t help, especially since we weren’t playing all that well at the time anyway.
This Munster team is a bit different in that it’s actually been a relatively good season from them. There have been a couple of disappointing blocks of results but overall it’s been pretty decent. The two wins at the start of the European campaign gave them something to build on. The home defeat to Clermont hurt a lot, but the away bonus point gave them a chance to qualify.
They have gradually got their aggression levels up and they’ve raised their intensity when they needed it.
As the season has gone on, they’ve tried to cut out mistakes and play in the right areas of the field. They have played to a simple gameplan that makes them extremely hard to stop when the intensity level is high.
So in training and team meetings this week, they’re able to drill home a simple but effective message. Look at how hard we have been to play against when our accuracy is up and when our intensity is up. Players latch onto that message and build confidence that way. Accuracy and intensity – convince yourself that you can get them right and the doubts will be overcome.
At the same time, you know that they are doing something similar so you have to drill it into your players to trust your defensive system. You’re not going to be able to second- guess the moves they might pull on you so you have to ensure that the basic jobs in defence are done. So you make sure that nobody shoots out of the line when they shouldn’t, everybody is vigilant for the full 80 minutes.
Munster have a real chance this weekend. Saracens are favourites with the bookies and I can see why that is. They are a massive side, very physical, very abrasive. I can see the game being a huge war of attrition up front with both sides looking to soften the other one up. It might not be a lot different to the game in Vicarage Road a couple of years ago when Munster banged away for the last 20 minutes in search of a try but couldn’t break through.
I do fancy them this time around though. If they can crank up the intensity and keep their accuracy in the process, they can break down this Saracens team. Any doubts people have are understandable – Saracens can blow teams away if they get going and they won’t mind a high-intensity game themselves. But Munster have to believe they have a chance.
If you don’t believe you have a chance, you have no chance. Simple as that.