O’Gara puts Mun­ster’s huge task in per­spec­tive

Cham­pi­ons Cup lead­ing points scorer praises Car­bery, de­scrib­ing his growth as ‘stag­ger­ing’

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY | HEINEKEN CHAMPIONS CUP - Gerry Thornley Rugby Cor­re­spon­dent

Heineken are back as ti­tle spon­sors and ar­guably no team is more syn­ony­mous with the com­pe­ti­tion, nor pro­vided more of its great­est mem­o­ries, than Mun­ster. The Heineken Cup and Mun­ster are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked.

Ever the ‘Drama Kings’, even when ap­par­ently sink­ing with­out trace, no one has demon­strated a bet­ter abil­ity to nav­i­gate through the choppy waters of the pool stages. They’ve done it 17 times. Hence, no team has played more matches in the tour­na­ment’s his­tory, but as they ap­proach their 167th match at the out­set of their 24th cam­paign, they ap­pear both more am­bi­tious and more vul­ner­a­ble than be­fore.

To­day, de­spite suc­ces­sive semi-fi­nals, they seem to be al­most at the start of a new jour­ney, and against an Ex­eter team who are way more ad­vanced in theirs. It is Jo­hann van Graan’s first full sea­son. It is Rob Bax­ter’s 10th.

Fur­ther­more, after just one quar­ter-fi­nal in five cam­paigns, the Chiefs view Mun­ster as a prized open­ing scalp. This is a cu­ri­ous case of form v pedi­gree. Ex­eter have oo­dles of the former and lit­tle of the lat­ter, whereas Mun­ster are the op­po­site.

In their pomp, no one epit­o­mised Mun­ster more than Ro­nan O’Gara. With 1,365 points he is the tour­na­ment’s lead­ing points scorer of all time, and by a dis­tance. Stephen Jones, in sec­ond place, is 496 points be­hind O’Gara, who re­cently be­came only the 12th Ir­ish player to be in­ducted into World Rugby’s Hall of Fame.

Highly or­gan­ised

Look­ing ahead to Sandy Park to­day, he ad­mits: “I feel it would be the re­sult of the week­end if Mun­ster were to win over there. I think it would be ab­so­lutely huge.

“Ex­eter are highly or­gan­ised. I don’t think there’s any area on the pitch that they don’t have a plan for. They’re so pa­tient in how they play the game, and they’re a clin­i­cal side.

“They’re a com­ing team and they had Le­in­ster on the ropes last sea­son but Le­in­ster’s class told. Le­in­ster have bet­ter in­di­vid­u­als, but Ex­eter put them un­der the pump for a long while. Other teams might have bro­ken but Le­in­ster had the men­tal for­ti­tude to stay strong.”

In another nos­tal­gic twist, the com­pe­ti­tion re­turns to free-to-air TV this week­end, and O’Gara will be back on our screens as a pun­dit for Vir­gin Me­dia One’s cov­er­age of the Bath-Toulouse game to­day (kick-off 1pm), as well as a high­lights pack­age at 9.50pm. Next week he will be in his old stomp­ing ground of Thomond Park to of­fer his anal­y­sis of Mun­ster v Glouces­ter, re-in­vok­ing mem­o­ries of the ‘Mir­a­cle Match’ and more be­sides.

He’s been back twice on Euro­pean days, for Mun­ster’s quar­ter-fi­nal de­mo­li­tion of Toulouse five years ago and the emo­tion­ally charged win over Glas­gow three sea­sons ago in the week of An­thony Fo­ley’s funeral. But this is his first pun­ditry gig there.

“But sure I’m into my sixth sea­son now,” says O’Gara of his post-play­ing, coach­ing cum pun­ditry ca­reer. “The show goes on in ev­ery re­gard. It’s a nor­mal course of events. I’d be mad for them to do well ob­vi­ously but at the same time there’s peo­ple at home too and they love watch­ing the game and they want to hear what you have to say as well, and you can’t b ****** t the au­di­ence.”

So he’ll park his Mun­ster loy­alty, to a point.

“Peo­ple would prob­a­bly re­spect that too, be­cause Mun­ster is my home team. I’ve coached for dif­fer­ent clubs but I only ever played for Mun­ster and that’s some­thing I’m very proud of.”

But no less than any­one else, O’Gara feels there has been lit­tle Mun­ster form to work off un­til last Satur­day’s meet­ing with Le­in­ster. While he notes that Johnny Sex­ton wasn’t play­ing, nei­ther was Conor Mur­ray, and O’Gara reck­ons he’s even more in­te­gral to Mun­ster “be­cause so much of their game re­volves around ‘9’”.

Yet there has been clear ev­i­dence in a shift of em­pha­sis in Mun­ster’s at­tack­ing game, from their “9” to their “10”. Starter plays and phase plays re­volve around a run­ner like Dan Gog­gin, or a pod of two or three play­ers, to ei­ther truck the ball up or pull the ball back for Joey Car­bery to bring out­side backs into play.

“Peo­ple for­get that Joey Car­bery is 22 years of age. It’s stag­ger­ing to see his growth as a player. I just hope peo­ple aren’t ex­pect­ing too much of him in his first full sea­son play­ing ‘10’,” says O’Gara.

Glid­ing ac­cel­er­a­tion

Nonethe­less, he has no qualms about again com­par­ing Car­bery’s glid­ing ac­cel­er­a­tion and bro­ken field run­ning to Beau­den Bar­rett. Hence O’Gara be­lieves we might see more of Car­bery as an im­pact re­place­ment for Ire­land, “whether it’s ‘10’, ‘15’ or ‘12’, be­cause when de­fences get a lit­tle bit tired, the guy can play ball bet­ter than most play­ers”.

“He’s very dan­ger­ous in the back field and in bro­ken play. He would be very dan­ger­ous if you set up two sides of the pack, with him as first re­ceiver on one side and Johnny as first re­ceiver on the other side. It would be hard to start a Test match with the two of them in the same team but you could fin­ish Test matches with them both.”

Whether due to Mur­ray’s ab­sence, or Car­bery’s ar­rival, Mun­ster are also play­ing more through “10”, go­ing wide more quickly and more of­ten, although O’Gara thinks it would have hap­pened re­gard­less.

“Where they were com­ing from they were try­ing to get their ba­sics right, with a mas­sive em­pha­sis on kick-chase. I think even the play­ers got bored with that. I’d say some­one like Earlsy, over the sum­mer, would have said ‘I need to get more ball in my hands’. He’s been play­ing so well and his voice would be lis­tened to down there. So it was prob­a­bly some­thing that was go­ing to de­velop any­way.”

Car­bery’s re­cent run of four suc­ces­sive starts at out­half al­ready amounts to more games with the num­ber “10” on his back in the whole of last sea­son (two for Ire­land and one for Le­in­ster). Fur­ther­more, none have been with Mur­ray.

“It’ll be a lot eas­ier for him when Conor is there, be­cause at the mo­ment, he’s the se­nior half­back part­ner and that’s not fair at a new club and at 22 years of age. It’s a pretty big ask even though he takes every­thing in his stride.”

O’Gara also thinks Chris Far­rell’s ab­sence is a blow. “I watched a lot of him in France and an­a­lysed him a lot. He’s a very good player. He’s ca­pa­ble of a pass­ing game, ex­cel­lent foot­work, ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing ball, smart. Peo­ple for­get he was man-of-the-match in a Grand Slam sea­son against Wales. If he got a run of games he could be a huge ad­di­tion to Mun­ster.”

Self­less de­ci­sion-mak­ing

O’Gara also hails the self­less de­ci­sion-mak­ing of Rory Scan­nell and “a dan­ger­ous back three”. That said, in last May’s Guin­ness Pro14 semi-fi­nal at the RDS, Mun­ster also had more passes, me­tres, pos­ses­sion and ter­ri­tory, but while these fig­ures all in­creased fur­ther last Satur­day at the Aviva Sta­dium (169 passes to Le­in­ster’s 78, 366 me­tres made to 181), their line breaks were down from 10 last May to seven.

Per­haps tellingly, three of those line breaks were by Si­mon Zebo. Mun­ster are, in­evitably, just a lit­tle less pen­e­tra­tive with­out him.

Adamant

“With­out a shadow of doubt,” agrees O’Gara. “I am adamant that any strong squad, whether it’s the Lions, Ire­land or Mun­ster, are bet­ter for hav­ing Zebo in it. He does what bril­liant strik­ers have done in foot­ball over the years con­sis­tently: he scores tries. His try-scor­ing record is in­com­pa­ra­ble to any­one else in Ir­ish rugby.”

That said, O’Gara be­lieves Rac­ing 92 are miss­ing “their key leader up front in Yan­nick Nyanga and key leader in their backs in Dan Carter”.

Look­ing across the 20 con­tenders, O’Gara says: “I think Le­in­ster have some­thing that other teams don’t have. They’ve got great ex­pe­ri­ence, mas­sive hunger to go again and also I wouldn’t un­der­es­ti­mate the value of hav­ing such en­ergy in their young legs.

“They have Fur­long, Porter, James Ryan, van der Flier, Leavy – with these guys there’s no mileage on the clock. And you get up off the ground sub-con­sciously a lit­tle quicker than you do when you hit 27/28. These fel­las are whip­pets. They don’t feel the bangs or knocks, be­cause it’s not cu­mu­la­tive. They think this is the norm, but after five or six years in the game they go ‘oh, this is a bit dif­fer­ent’.”

O’Gara also watched Sara­cens’ win against Har­lequins last week­end and con­cludes: “I thought they were a few rungs be­low Le­in­ster and I think that was demon­strated in last sea­son’s semi-fi­nal against Le­in­ster. I think when Le­in­ster wanted to go up a gear they left them for dead. That’s not to say that, like the All Blacks, on a given day they can’t be caught.”

Cue the chas­ing pack to­day, Mun­ster et al.

Ex­eter are highly or­gan­ised. I don’t think there’s any area on the pitch that they don’t have a plan for

PHO­TO­GRAPH: BILLY STICKLAND/INPHO

Joey Car­bery: “Peo­ple for­get that Joey Car­bery is 22 years of age. It’s stag­ger­ing to see his growth as a player. I just hope peo­ple aren’t ex­pect­ing too much of him in his first full sea­son play­ing ‘10’.”

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