In some ways, things in sport are cyclical. Unless of course there happens to be an all-dominating force at the head of affairs. Manchester United in the early years of the Premiership, Dublin currently in Gaelic football, Willie Mullins in National Hunt racing. Now read on…
Examine rugby through that lens and you get both sides of the coin mentioned above. From an Irish perspective at least. It began with Ulster making the breakthrough on the European stage. Followed by Munster – only after they’d endured years of heartache beforehand. Connacht came back from near oblivion not all that long ago and earned their deserved day in the sun winning the PRO12 – as it was then – but, by and large, the last decade and a half from an Irish and European perspective.
Teams like the admirable Exeter Chiefs and bankrolled, scandalised Saracens and indeed Wasps have put more of an imprint on things in recent years, but there is nothing to suggest there has been or will be any significant diminishment in the Leinster output any time soon.
There are, however, signs that the Shannon tides are starting to murmur again. The Thomond Park outfit haven’t in all honesty, looked like being capable of producing anything major since Anthony Foley’s passing in 2016. In fact, in the humble opinion the last noteworthy performance the men in red delivered was against Glasgow in the days after Axel was laid to rest.
Until most recently, that is. Their overcoming of Harlequins in the opening round of the European Cup would have been positive enough in its own right but there are several other factors which must enter into calculations.
On one hand, it must be acknowledged that the English club are certainly not the force they once were, but, inclinations that Johann Van Graan’s charges had significant forward momentum were handsomely validated when they then traveled to Clermont and pulled ‘A Munster’ so in defiance of logic that either Michael Corcoran’s commentary needs to be enshrined for posterity or a production entitled Miracle Match 2.0 needs to be put in motion post haste because their latest act of escapology might just trump any bit of disaster evasion the have ever managed to pull off in all their years of adventures.
Rugby followers of a certain, more modern vintage might not realise there was a point not all that long ago when Irish victories on French soil were as rare as hen’s teeth. Even though things have improved markedly since those days, victories over there are still not the type of thing one could ever take for granted.
There’s no doubt the Irish rugby psyche has altered, perhaps seismically, since the bad old days, but, conceding a try after 26 seconds would surely put a dent in any teams best laid intentions. Bad as that was, being 28-9 down after less than half an hour would decimate any hope of recovery and turn the day into a damage limitation exercise for most teams. MOST teams.
Munster are not most teams. The striking thing about them in Stade Marcel Michelin was that at no stage did they appear flustered. It was as if the spirits of O’Connell, O’Gara, Foley et al were placing guiding hands on the shoulders of the soldiers in the trenches and pointing them towards the latest gripping chapter in their tome of daring rescue missions.
My sources in the Treaty City tell me there has been an operational rather than cultural shift around the setup. In that Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree have put their stamp on the team’s gameplan. And, maybe every bit as significantly, a new leadership group has been established within the squad, revolving around the younger brigade therein.
Both factors were very much in evidence during their latest French expedition. Conor Murray has long been rightly lauded as one of the best scrum halves in world rugby, though there would also been a general acceptance that his efficiency had been at the the very least restricted by a long standing neck injury. However, whether under instruction or of his own volition, what had become a near obsession with box-kicking off the base of the scrum and/or rucks put a further caveat on his effectiveness.
Against Clermont though, the box-kicking appeared to be binned as there was a very obvious and deliberate shift back to the tried and trusted Munster ways of yore – and the proper way for any team to play in my view – keep ball in hand and work through the phases of pick and drive. Granted, there was the odd trademark electrifying line break from Keith earls thrown in for good measure.
For me, mind you, it was the utter dominance of Peter O’Mahony at the lineout and the gargantuan efforts of European Cup newcomer Josh Wycherley at the scrum and breakdown that had Munster DNA coursing through its veins. And all the above without even mentioning CJ Stander doing, well, CJ Stander things!
The beauty of it all is that this was no one-off. Munster, like Leinster, are unbeaten this season so far. How far can they go? To the brave and the faithful nothing is impossible.