Munster will thrive on the final stage with the right sort of pressure

Munster will thrive on the final stage with the right sort of pressure
Billy Holland lifted by John Ryan and Jack Donoghue. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

The Tom Savage rugby column

I'VE never won anything. In school sports days, I always came fourth.

In some ways, I suppose that’s better than always finishing second.  Sure, I was still losing, but if no one remembers who finished second, absolutely no one remembers if fourth place was even there at all. 

There’s no pressure in fourth because no one cares. 

Finals are a great distillation of team sports but with that distillation comes extreme pressure. Every moment from September until last weekend is thrown into the pressure cooker that is “The Decider”. 

Win, and you’ve made history for your club. Lose and it will all feel like it was for nothing - at least, initially.

But this pressure will not be something new for this Munster side. Far from it.

Last season, around this time of year, Munster played Scarlets with an entire season - indeed, seasons worth of history - on their shoulders. 

Lose, and it was the Challenge Cup and with it, shame and doom. Win, and they just made par by finishing sixth.

As Billy Holland put it at the start of this rollercoaster season at the launch of the league:

“The last two games of the season last year – where we played Scarlets and Edinburgh – were two of the hardest games we’ve ever played in pressure wise. Mainly because you were in a situation where if you lose you’re not in Europe and you “Shame Munster Rugby” and if you win, you finish 6th and “Shame Munster Rugby”. I think it was a real no win situation but I think we learned a lot about ourselves.” 

There was no trophy to win last season, just the burden of history.  This season, it’s all changed. From 6th place to 1st. 

From fighting for the last Champions’ Cup spot to squaring off for the Pro12 trophy. Last May, Munster were dealing with bad pressure, the scary kind of pressure that no one wants. 

The Black Mark of History kind of pressure that ages you, crushes you and if you’re not careful, breaks you. Munster came through that pressure and now they face a different kind.

Simon Zebo.
Simon Zebo.

The good pressure. 

The pressure you earn. You earn that good pressure from a season of winning and that’s where Munster find themselves. 

They’re just 80 short minutes away from a first trophy since 2011. The Scarlets stand in their way.

As a final, it’s one of those games that make for easy punditry - the loose, counter attacking free runners vs the oppressive heavy defence and set piece animals. 

Attack vs defence. Loose vs tight. It’s a clash of rugby ideologies.

At least, on the marketing, that is. Reality is a different story.

I’m sure that Scarlets will be feeling broadly similar, though.  To them, I’m sure they felt that their final was last week. 

Beating Leinster in the RDS for the first time in two years and, while they were at it, becoming the first side to ever win an away Pro12 semi-final? 

That’s a big achievement. To do it as confidently as they managed is no small feat either, especially while down to 14 men.

They’ll be very confident of beating a Munster side they see as “limited” and “one dimensional”. 

So how do Munster go about beating them?

By, ironically enough, being limited and one dimensional. The Scarlets are a fantastic attacking side in a pure sense, with superb ball players all throughout their side. 

They’re a wide-wide, ultra mobile team with a penchant for turning over the opposition through their collection of talented jackals.

We know they can counter attack excellently.  We know they’ve got excellent hands in the wide channels and we know that they’re a live threat at every breakdown. So how do we go about beating them?

We do what Leinster should have done. That’s extraordinarily easy to say in hindsight, of course, but Friday’s result shows that taking on Scarlets at their own game is a self-destructive pursuit.

Going at them in the way the Munster rugby has traditionally been known for is the key.

Fringe carries. Mauling. Big one out runners. Kicking the corners.

When Leinster did this, they made consistent ground and, for me, made their own lives way too difficult. 

Any ruck you make you have to clean, and the further you are away from your forwards, the riskier those rucks get- especially with James Davies lurking.

So Munster should just go through the “pig” phases around the fringes. Get the lighter Scarlets pack working where they are uncomfortable until they break. 

A carry that makes 1m now, makes a carry in the second half go further.

If Leinster had worked Scarlets a bit more around the fringe, even if it didn’t work initially, it would have paid dividends later.  Instead, the ball went wide too quick and Leinster suffered.

Munster must play into this clash of styles, strangle Scarlets in defence by engaging their light pack in tight areas until they’re forced to narrow - then you hit the wide channels.

Do that, and Munster will be in with a great chance. 

Finals are for winning. And if you exert the pressure of the final onto the opposition until they consider breaking, then you’ll win more often than not.

You earn this pressure. Now go on and win it.

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