Munster must keep their emotions in check in what will be a niggly battle with Ospreys

Munster must keep their emotions in check in what will be a niggly battle with Ospreys
 Dave Kilcoyne of Munster crashes over to score a try at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea. Picture: Darren Griffiths/Sportsfile

The Tom Savage rugby column

WHEN the Ospreys come to town, there’s always that little bit of extra niggle. 

It’s not at Glasgow levels of niggle right now, but the potential is always there. There’s a rivalry there that goes back a few years and gets regular topping up with every game - on both sides.

Last season, it was Ospreys obnoxious celebrations that topped up the Munster side of the bitterness scale, and Sam Davies cheeky braying on Twitter about it early this season made Munster’s two regular season victories over the Ospreylians all the sweeter.  The 33-0 whipping in Musgrave Park was great but the Munster special in the Liberty Stadium - turning a likely Ospreys victory into the ashes of defeat in the last 10 minutes - was as Munster as Superman’s Paul O’Connell pyjamas. And thus, even better than a 33-0 beasting.

But with those regular season defeats comes extra motivation for the Ospreys. What better revenge than beating Munster in a semi-final in Thomond Park?

The bookies don’t think it’s likely to happen but it’s a lot more likely than it would seem on the outside.

Winning an away playoff semi-final in the Pro12 is astonishingly rare. So rare, in fact, that it’s never, ever happened in the history of the Pro12 playoffs since the league introduced the series in 2010. But just because a thing has never happened doesn’t mean it will never happen.

This year's semi-final makeup seems set up for just such an event. Leinster will have a tiger by the tail with the Scarlets - the form team in the league with 24 points in their last 5 games (just one point ahead of Munster with 23 points from the last 5).

Ospreys, on the other hand, have just five points from the last five games. To put it more starkly, they have a worse recent record than Zebre and Edinburgh. On paper, they don’t stand much of a chance in this one but… But you can’t write them off. 

Tommy O'Donnell claims the lineout against Ospreys in the game back earlier this year. Picture: INPHO/Camerasport/Simon King
Tommy O'Donnell claims the lineout against Ospreys in the game back earlier this year. Picture: INPHO/Camerasport/Simon King

Yes, they have been in horrible form heading into this semi-final but, for the most part, that horrible form has been without key guys like Webb, Tipuric, Biggar and Alun Wyn Jones playing collectively. 

A lot will hinge on how well Jones and Biggar (returning from a shoulder issue and an ankle injury) will take to this game. 

How large will the Lions plane loom in the distance? Jones, in particular, is of vital importance. 

He holds a totemic influence over the Ospreys in the way that Paul O’Connell did for Munster in his heydey but, like O’Connell, if he has an off day, the Ospreys tend to also.

The key for Munster will be managing their emotional tempo before and during this game.  If they do that, they’ll probably win.

Managing your intensity before a game like this is hugely important. It’s as vital as any tactical aspect of the game. For me, it’s almost more important.

If you’ve ever played a team sport, you’ll have experienced that feeling before a game where you know, and everyone in the team knows, that it’ll take something special to beat you. 

You can’t fake that belief and when you have it, it’s a powerful drug.

Ireland had it before that England game in Croke Park in 07.  Munster had it before the Glasgow game this year. When you all believe - deep down - that you can’t be beaten, you generally won’t be. You feel invincible. 

And that feeling is contagious to everyone in the dressing room, That collective energy translates to momentum on the pitch, and even to momentum in the stands, creating a powerful feedback loop. When everyone has that shared belief, things just tend to go right on the pitch. 

Passes stick. Tackles rock guys back. Carries go further. You FLOW. And when you flow, you win.

On the other hand, when that feeling is not there, it’s such a hard thing to push past. It’s like that feeling at a house party where nobody’s having any fun. The conversation is stagnant. The laughs a little too forced. Nobody knew how it set in, but it’s the quintessential bad buzz. The same thing applies to rugby. If you bring a bad buzz into a game like this one, you lose more often than not.

This will be where we’ll see about any hangovers post-Saracens. Thumping wins over Treviso and Connacht are one thing, but the emotional challenge of this game will be the first real challenge since that defeat in the Aviva.

This is where your leaders earn their corn. Not just the captain - as vital as he is - but the other leaders all over the pitch. Those leaders dictate the enthusiasm and direct the energy. If they learned the lessons of the Saracens game, then the energy should take care of itself.

Andrew Conway put it excellently this week when he said: “At the start of the year, I would have bitten your hand off to have the season we’ve had. But once you get there, you get greedy and you look for something else, a PRO12 trophy or whatever comes with that after. If we get knocked out in two semis, it’s going to feel like a failure.” 

That fear of failure, that need to capitalise on this season’s achievements, is as powerful a driver to dunk the Saracens hangover and push on to, perhaps, a chance at winning Munster’s first trophy since 2011.

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