Denis Leamy: key member of Munster’s back row

Denis Leamy: key member of Munster’s back row

“When the players came in at half-time I told them it was the most embarrassing 40 minutes I’ve experienced since being in rugby,” said Saracens coach Alan Gaffney after his team’s 40-29 defeat to London Wasps.
“It wasn’t just the fact that we were 30 points behind, it was that we didn’t put our hands up or stand up to be counted.”

Whatever the ex-Munster coach said at the break seemed to work, as Sarries got the lead out and rallied marvellously against a Wasps team that had admittedly already done the hard work.

But, as it was the previous weekend when his team were on the end of a tanking in Kingsholm, Gaffney’s defence featured gaps wide enough to run an icebreaker through.

For two successive matches, Saracens have only put it in after a 40-minute pasting which simply won’t do in European action against a team hardly renowned for slow starts.

Any such defensive deficiencies will be heavily punished by a Munster team that’s already seen off the best that English rugby had on offer in this competition.

And as it was in that defeat to Gloucester, Saracens certainly demonstrated that they’re not lacking in heart against Wasps. There’s a lot of guts in this group, the least that one would expect from a team under Gaffney’s charge

But there’s no getting away from the fact that this is a team whose fine European form still cannot conceal a league record which reads 10 wins and 10 defeats from 20 outings.

Yet one cannot ignore that in defeating the Ospreys in the quarter-final, Saracens effectively defeated the Grand Slam winners, so there’ll be no underestimating the challenge they’ll pose next weekend.

A glance through their squad reveals a handful of household names, headlined by veteran English World Cup winner Richard Hill, Kiwi Chris Jack (out injured) and Italian hooker Fabio Ongaro.

But Munster second row Mick O’Driscoll echoed a sentiment that has, no doubt, been lodged into the squad’s mindset by coach Declan Kidney.

“Any team who reaches the Heineken Cup semi-finals has to be a top side and we rate Saracens as being right up there,” said the lock.

“A Heineken Cup semi-final is just a massive game – and everyone knows this tournament means such a huge amount to us – but, while we want to go on and win it again, all we are concentrating on at the moment is the Saracens challenge.”

A Munster team which featured 14 changes from the previous weekend’s defeat to Leinster deservedly took the spoils on Saturday against the Ospreys thanks to an injury-time Paul Warwick penalty in Musgrave Park.

That a reserve selection could beat a full-strength Ospreys XV says much for the current mood in the Munster camp. It doesn’t stem from cockiness – anything but – the coach would never allow such silliness to creep into his ranks. But there’s no escaping that there’s a rod of steel running through this team, growing sturdier towards the business end of the season and will hopefully conclude with the Holy Grail claimed again.

Yet for the second successive weekend, Kidney will have been worried by the repeated indiscipline at the breakdown, which would have been punished if James Hook had switched on his kicking radar.

For however well Munster played in Kingsholm, an accurate Chris Paterson could have greatly altered the outcome of that compelling 80 minutes in the west country.

“In their quarter-final win over the Ospreys, (Saracens) took their chances and proved very strong in all aspects of play and, any side who can turn the Ospreys over, has certainly proved their worth,” said O’Driscoll.

“We do know the Ricoh Arena as we played London Wasps there in our opening Pool Five match this season – and lost by a point. But the stadium is great and as it is quite a big soccer pitch it should make for a good game.”

O’Gara’s fitness

While questions remain over Ronan O’Gara’s fitness, his understudy has proven an outstanding acquisition.

Paul Warwick has been a seamless addition to the squad this season and was one of the few positives to be taken from the Magners League defeat in the RDS.

He’s not prone to doing silly things with the ball, be it in play or off the tee and has demonstrated great level-headedness after a few early season kicking glitches.

That he landed over a match-winning penalty deep in injury time on Saturday demonstrated his considerable nerve yet again. O’Gara should be okay for next weekend, but it’s good to know there’s such excellent back-up in place should it be required.

Several reports from Saturday’s win over the Ospreys again referenced the magnificence of Shaun Payne, who won’t be starting next Sunday given the Denis Hurley’s display last European day out.

Not only that, but Barry Murphy and Anthony Horgan were chomping at the bit and with Tomas O’Leary putting in another sterling effort, Munster’s strength-in-depth cannot be disputed.

Munster have never enjoyed being favourites all that much, but that they most certainly are just that going into this ERC semi-final, which will suit Sarries fine and dandy.

“Munster are a very physical side so we have to get it right in the contact area or it’s going to be a very long afternoon on Sunday,” said skipper Neil de Cock.

“Coach Alan Gaffney’s knowledge of Munster is clearly going to be massively important for us as he has a great deal of know-how and insight into how the side ticks.

“I know that Munster have changed a couple of personnel since he was there but their game focus and style of play hasn’t changed much since he left. Having said that, although this will stand us in good stead, we still have to go out on the pitch and do the business.”

Saracens cannot afford the sort of standing start that they’ve offered in their last two Premiership outings. If they produce another lead-legged start, Munster will leave the whistling Dixie.

There’s a steely focus to Munster, just what’s required this time of the season. The experience that the likes of O’Gara, Howlett, O’Callaghan and Quinlan can call upon will serve them well this Sunday.

Were this match being played in Ireland, one would fear for how much Saracens would lose by. That the game is a ‘home’ fixture for Gaffney’s boys does give them some hope, as does the former Munster coach’s knowledge of the province.

But anything other than a Munster win this Sunday would represent one of this tournament’s most seismic shocks.

Expect a tight first half, in which Saracens will try to challenge Munster upfront and hope to punch a few holes to release their backs into.

Yet Munster will be aiming to do the same and their greater quality will ultimately tilt the match in their favour – perhaps even by a comfortable margin. Cardiff could be calling the provincial faithful yet again. But beware of Gaffney and co nonetheless.