In the 19th minute of the pivotal Pool 4 Champions Cup meeting in Paris last Sunday, JJ Hanrahan and his Munster colleagues jogged back behind halfway to receive a Racing 92 restart.
Munster were already a few promising situations and three penalties to the good. 9-0 in front, with a quarter of the game almost done.
Suspend reality for one moment and imagine this was the Crusaders preparing to receive. That’s what I did.
Right, 9-0 in front away from home,momentum all on our side, doubts already planted in the heads of French opposition with the potential to get panicky.
Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, whoever, wouldn’t even have had to call for a regroup. The players would get their water in.
They’d do their deep breathing techniques to reset mentally with one goal in mind from the kick-off.
Keep the opposition outside our 40m line, and once we’ve done that, then we reassess.
It’s not that I don’t have a shred of empathy with Jean Kleyn and his crazy illegal check on Teddy Iribaren a minute later.
There are two sides to a rugby person’s brain — you either were reared as a back and that half of the rugby population is thinking ‘Kleyn, what a muppet, how could you be so stupid?
And the other 50% are absolutely empathising as forwards with the second row, thinking ‘that little f*ucker Iribaren, trying to gnaw away at one of my players, I’ll check this pup and sort that sharpish’.
These are the margins. The final tally in Paris of 39-22 is not reflective of what could have happened had Munster been more clinical and avoided stupid mistakes at key moments.
With 76 minutes gone, it was 25-22.
One thing jumped out at me. Munster had four offensive penalties awarded by Wayne Barnes in the first half.
These were gorgeous advantage situations and Munster put none of them away.
What’s worse was the apparent — and I stress that — lack of understanding or comprehension of the value of a penalty free play and the absolute importance of taking those moments and turning three points into seven.
In the first half, I genuinely felt it was a game Munster could have won by between 10 and 20 points.
In fact, it was a poor game for the first hour, littered with ineffective kicking from the hand.
The game was there for Munster to kill until you realise this is a Munster group lacking the nous of how to kill a game.
How could they be different? It’s a Munster group that hasn’t been in that position for the better part of a decade, there’s few in that squad who knows how to do that.
And it’s important for balance to understand that.
After being awarded the first penalty, Munster went through one phase and Billy Holland throws a speculative offload in a manner that suggested the idea of a try was more a luxury than a necessity.
The second penalty, Munster could not play the ball, fair enough. 6-0.
Next the ball was advanced 10m in front of the posts but JJ drops the ball under very little pressure. Points taken, 9-0.
That is key, the absence of ruthlessness. The Munster players, in that moment, lacked awareness of the significance of these moments and how vulnerable Racing were right there.
You are thinking, ‘this is when we need to accelerate our game, ramp up our thought process’.
Instead we had lads getting up off the ground smiling that they’d been given a gimme three points when that was the game, right there behind them.
Let’s surmise that Munster converted two of those free plays into tries — and remember they had other chances, with Kleyn a foot short and Farrell held up by Vakatawa over the line, so it’s hardly unrealistic — that’s still only 50% conversion rate.
But it’s 14 points, not six. Even with one, it’s 10-0 and Hanrahan’s third penalty is making it 13-0.
And that is a massive thing for the new coaching group at Munster, to underline the slim differences at this level.
Munster suffocate Racing if they’re maximising those penalty advantages. They’ve a foot on the throat of their hosts and the crowd is twitchy now.
Racing are panicky and starting to force things. And that’s when you can create errors. But if you allow French teams a foothold, that feeds them oxygen.
Then you see that Iribaren reverse pass for the Thomas walk-in. They are the margins –— if Munster pick that pass off, it’s 16-3 at the other end of the field.
The depth of the Racing 92 roster is something Munster cannot match, but it’s not all about deep pockets.
The importance of recruitment at club level is a fundamental for a head coach. it is literally as important as tactics.
That light at the end of the tunnel isn’t necessarily an oncoming train.
Maybe it’s proven World Cup winners with the Springboks, Damien de Allende and JG Snyman.
Already you can see who the focal point of the backline and pack will be. It’s rare you get two signings of that quality together.
The 16th man needs to hang in there.
Solving the fascinating confidence conundrum
The most fascinating conundrum I have come across in my early years of coaching is player and team confidence.
How to build it, how quickly it evaporates, and how the bloody hell do you get it back?
If I could give the answer to that last one, I’d be some coach.
I look at Leinster. They get pulled back in the first minute of their Champions Cup game at Lyon.
No problem. They go back. They go again. At the minute they look bulletproof.
Munster look anything but.
La Rochelle players are getting their confidence levels up again.
It’s the burning question: What is the key to getting a requisite level of confidence for a performance?
Confidence can drain away in 80 minutes but takes weeks and months to build back up.
A coach can’t wait for that. We must look deeper. So much is about knowing your players.
It’s a coffee, having confidence and trust in the conversation.
The way things are going it’s more a coach’s conundrum.
Sports psychologists have a role but you’ve always got to put yourself in the players’ shoes. And you’ve got to earn their trust.
It’s a fascinating challenge — and it’s never too far away.
A stark reminder of sport and its real place in life
With Ireland’s provisional Six Nations confirmed this week, there were eyeballs aplenty fixed on the respective performances of Conor Murray in Paris and John Cooney in Clermont last weekend as the debate over who starts against Scotland continues.
However much they could have impressed, neither did anything remotely as inspiring as another warrior scrum-half on Sunday, even if it was a testimonial run out at Headingly.
But everything is relative.
As former Leeds Rhino nine Rob Burrows acknowledged the support of the 19,000 in the ground, with his one-year-old son Jackson in his arms, it was difficult not to feel a bit shallow moaning about Munster’s wastefulness at La Défense Arena.
With confirmation of his struggle with motor neurone disease, it’s a fairly stark reminder of sport and its real place.
Of how everything else is secondary and incidental when health and family are in the conversation.
Burrows would be considered the Peter Stringer of Rugby League, a feisty, combative nine who never took a backward step.
That will serve him well in the coming months and years.
Paul Darbyshire was one of my best friends and I still think about him a lot.
Rob Burrows isn’t short of support either if Headingly against Bradford was a reliable indicator.
We all have great plans for ourselves.
Watching Rob made me pledge one thing: If you’re healthy, don’t be miserable.