No quar­ter given as Mun­ster sense rare chance of sil­ver­ware

After the dis­ap­point­ment of de­feat to Rac­ing 92, there re­mains the prospect of a first tro­phy in seven years

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY - Gerry Thornley

Mun­ster’s sea­sons are de­fined by their ex­ploits in Europe.

Since their run to the 2000 fi­nal, it’s been ever thus. Their Holy Grail. Their Mag­nif­i­cent Ob­ses­sion. Come a big week in Europe, the province comes alive. If at home, Thomond Park be­comes a ci­tadel. If abroad, the Red Army pitches up. But there’s a flip side.

On vir­tu­ally all other oc­ca­sions, such as for today’s Guin­ness Pro14 quar­ter-fi­nal against Edinburgh, it’s just not the same, in the build-up, or come match-day. Wit­ness the vast swathes of empty spa­ces this af­ter­noon, com­pared to the Euro­pean quar­ter-fi­nal against Toulon.

The Heineken Cup fi­nal wins in 2006 and 2008 led to un­bri­dled cel­e­bra­tions, as have many other one-off wins along the way, but each de­flat­ing Euro­pean exit seems to leave a han­gover when Mun­ster re­turn to do­mes­tic mat­ters.

Ad­mit­tedly, in 2011, they re­cov­ered from their first pool exit since 1998 to reach the league play-offs, and a week after Le­in­ster’s mo­men­tous come­back win over Northamp­ton, Mun­ster were lurk­ing in the Thomond Park long grass and wildly cel­e­brated their 19-9 win in the fi­nal.

It was their fourth tro­phy in a golden six year pe­riod. Since then though, Mun­ster haven’t won any sil­ver­ware.

That was Conor Mur­ray’s break­through cam­paign. He didn’t make his first start un­til that March, but Tony McGa­han chose him to start nine of Mun­ster’s last ten games, ahead of Peter Stringer and Tomás O’Leary; cul­mi­nat­ing in the fi­nal.

“I’ve un­be­liev­able mem­o­ries from my first year with Mun­ster. I was ob­vi­ously a new­comer to the squad. This squad now a lot of my close mates are play­ing and that would make it re­ally spe­cial to win some­thing, be­cause you’ve gone through a lot of heartache with them over the last few years. Not that you ever ‘de­serve’ it but we have the abil­ity to be a tro­phy-win­ning team. So that’s where our hunger is now, to try and do it, and it would mean an aw­ful lot.”

Fi­nal out­ing

David Wal­lace was man-of-the-match in his 200th Mun­ster game in that 2011 fi­nal and although he would play three more matches the fol­low­ing sea­son, likes to think of it as his fi­nal out­ing for his province.

“It’s a mas­sive mem­ory for me. It was my last full game ever. It was great to win that, and by beat­ing Le­in­ster, who had just won the Euro­pean Cup, although they’ll ar­gue that their eyes were off the prize. I had my fam­ily there. My boys (An­drew and Har­vey) came on to the field, Julie Rose wasn’t born there, and I had my pic­ture taken with them. Yeah, it was lovely. I think back and I’m happy to have those mo­ments.”

As for the Pro14 be­ing the poorer re­la­tion, Wal­lace says: “It doesn’t com­pete in terms of Euro­pean pres­tige, but I think it is get­ting bet­ter. When you fac­tor in that three of the four semi-fi­nal­ists in the Euro­pean Cup are Pro14 teams, the ac­tual stan­dard of the com­pe­ti­tion is very un­der­val­ued.

“For mo­men­tum go­ing in to next year, it would be bril­liant to have some sil­ver­ware for this squad, which is very young re­ally. I don’t think there’s any re­tirees or near re­tirees this year. Billy Hol­land, who’s 31, is the el­dest in the squad and I’d say in­ter­nally it will be a mas­sive goal. Maybe less so in the eyes of the pub­lic but I think that per­cep­tion will change.

“I would say the Pro14 is a good bit ahead of the Pre­mier­ship now, and is on a par with the Top 14. We have to value it more and I think def­i­nitely it’s very im­por­tant for Mun­ster to win it.”

Whereas Mur­ray would go on to play in the 2011 World Cup, Wal­lace suf­fered a bad knee in­jury in a warm-up game against Eng­land, and his last of three matches in 2011-12 was as a late re­place­ment in the Euro­pean Cup quar­ter-fi­nal de­feat at home to Ul­ster.

Five weeks later Mun­ster played the Ospreys away in the league semi-fi­nal and, in Tony McGa­han’s last game, were thrashed 45-10.

In 2013-14, they had only one match left, away to Ze­bre, after their 16-10 Euro­pean Cup semi-fi­nal loss to Cler­mont – Ro­nan O’Gara’s last game. But the fol­low­ing sea­son, three weeks after los­ing a Euro­pean Cup semi-fi­nal to Toulon, they were beaten 16-15 away to Glas­gow in the Pro12 semi-fi­nals.

In 2014-15, they re­cov­ered from a rare Euro pool exit by reach­ing the Pro12 fi­nal, only to be thrashed 31-13 by Glas­gow in Belfast. An­other pool exit fol­lowed a year later, when only bonus point wins at home to Edinburgh and the Ospreys se­cured Euro­pean Cup qual­i­fi­ca­tion again.

Came up short

Last sea­son Mun­ster mem­o­rably plot­ted a route to the Cham­pi­ons Cup semi-fi­nals again, but came up short against Sara­cens at the Aviva Sta­dium. Five weeks later they were beaten 46-22 by the Scar­lets at the same venue in the Pro12 fi­nal.

Throw in the Cham­pi­ons Cup semi-fi­nal de­feat to Rac­ing a fort­night ago, and since 2011 Mun­ster have lost one quar­ter-fi­nal (in Europe), six semi-fi­nals (four in Europe) and two fi­nals (both in the Pro12).

Such con­sis­tency is to be ad­mired. There have been many fine per­for­mances, in­clud­ing three quar­ter-fi­nal wins in Europe and a cou­ple of Pro12 semi-fi­nal wins.

How­ever, nine de­feats in 14 knock-out games over the last seven sea­sons has left plenty of rocks un­der their tow­els and some men­tal bag­gage. No won­der Peter O’Ma­hony ad­mit­ted after the Rac­ing de­feat: “I am tired of los­ing semi-fi­nals.”

Look­ing on from the out­side, Wal­lace main­tains: “I don’t know if it would be a mon­key off their backs. A lot has hap­pened in those years. There’s been a lot of tran­si­tion, and the graph is very much on the right track.”

Cit­ing Sara­cens knock-out de­feats in Europe in the years lead­ing up to their two tri­umphs, he adds: “Even us los­ing those semi-fi­nals and fi­nals be­fore we won it, you need to go through those painful de­feats to mo­ti­vate your­self to get bet­ter. It’s part of the ma­tur­ing and hard­en­ing of a squad. You wouldn’t look at them as neg­a­tives, but as real learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. I think they’ll use that pain and those losses to im­prove as a squad.”

None­the­less, a patently frus­trated Mur­ray was first off the pitch in the Stade Cha­ban Del­mas a fort­night ago to be on his own with his thoughts in the dress­ing-room. A de­feat has rarely seemed to hurt him so much. Given the province’s Euro-ac­cen­tu­ated men­tal­ity, he ad­mits there is a pos­si­bil­ity of an­other han­gover.

“Yeah, there is. That’s com­pletely nat­u­ral be­cause what you said is true. We put a lot of pres­sure on get­ting into a Euro­pean fi­nal and win­ning that, so it’s prob­a­bly down to an in­di­vid­ual thing – how you deal with it your­self and how you pitch up on Satur­day. Jo­hann [van Graan]) and the coach­ing staff have gone through it, we’ve re­viewed the game, we’ve looked at why we lost it, we’ve trained in the ar­eas we thought we were weak and tried to fix that. He’s got the team in a good place.

“But I’d be ly­ing if I told you I didn’t think about the Rac­ing game quite a bit since then, and still am think­ing about it. So it’s about how you man­age it your­self. It’s a nat­u­ral thing that you have to go through and pitch up.

“But it would be worse if the Rac­ing game was your last game of the sea­son, and you didn’t have a chance to play a game, play well and be­gin to get over it. That’s the beauty of where we are this sea­son. We have a chance to win a quar­ter fi­nal and get back into good form and good spir­its – which we are. We’ve got­ten over it pretty well. We’re all ma­ture enough to know how to get over these things.

“Europe is ob­vi­ously num­ber one, there’s never any hid­ing that with Mun­ster, but to win a tro­phy would be bril­liant for us as a group. I think we’re a squad that’s very close to it, with what we’ve done in the last few years, with the Euro­pean semi-fi­nals, the fi­nal of the Pro12 fi­nal. It’s a squad that’s very close to do­ing some­thing, so you’ve got to dust your­selves off and try to do it.” Now with their fifth dif­fer­ent head coach since that 2011 tri­umph, lift­ing a tro­phy would im­bue the Mun­ster or­gan­i­sa­tion with re­newed be­lief for next sea­son. For ex­am­ple, Glas­gow and the Scar­lets win­ning those Pro12 ti­tles were the spring­board for much im­proved show­ings in Europe in the en­su­ing sea­sons.

“In a way we prob­a­bly need it be­cause if we go an­other year without a tro­phy it just builds that pres­sure again, and that’s just the cold facts of it,” ad­mits Mur­ray.

“That’s in the back­ground but from the Rac­ing game to now all we want to do is per­form this Satur­day, and with re­spect to Edinburgh who are on an un­be­liev­able run, eight of nine games, beat­ing all the Ir­ish prov­inces etc.

“They’re a force to be reck­oned with, but we want to show every­one how we can per­form, and get rid of that Rac­ing game, and then we can start to build again. Yeah, to end with a tro­phy would take a bit of heat off.”

Akin to 2011, were Mun­ster to beat Edinburgh today, they’d be lurk­ing in the long grass at the RDS a week after Le­in­ster play in a Euro­pean Cup fi­nal. As that fi­nal showed, it can be very dif­fi­cult for a team to re­fo­cus a week after scal­ing those heights. So although today is only a quar­ter-fi­nal, Mun­ster have a real shot at a first tro­phy in seven years here. And they need it.

You need to go through those painful de­feats to mo­ti­vate your­self to get bet­ter. It’s part of the ma­tur­ing and hard­en­ing of a squad – David Wal­lace

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JAMES CROMBIE

After the Cham­pi­ons Cup de­feat to Rac­ing 92, a patently frus­trated Mur­ray was first off the pitch in the Stade Cha­ban Del­mas to be on his own with his thoughts in the dress­ing-room . A de­feat has rarely seemed to hurt him so much. Re­newed be­lief

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