Whatever about the wailing and gnashing of teeth within the Munster rugby community following yet another defeat to Leinster, Stephen Larkham has insisted the players have to park their pain, learn their lessons and move onto the business of beating Exeter Chiefs.
Last Saturday’s 34-19 United Rugby Championship derby loss at Thomond Park has prompted a flurry of criticism in the direction of the Munster management and executives about the province’s inability to keep pace with a Leinster team that was way too good for the home side despite not being at full strength.
It was a seventh consecutive league defeat to Munster’s historic rivals and sparked a fierce backlash in the media with the Irish Examiner’s own Donal Lenihan writing with obvious in his yesterday column that Leinster’s performance in Limerick highlighted “how far behind Munster have fallen in this lopsided rivalry.”
“Munster remain somewhat delusional as to their current status within the European game,” Lenihan added, which brings us back to this Saturday’s opening encounter with Exeter, the 2020 champions.
As they prepare for the first leg of a Round of 16 double header in the Heineken Champions Cup at Sandy Park, with the Chiefs set to return to Thomond Park seven days later, senior coach Larkham believes the hurting has to stop if his squad is to get the most out of the next 160 minutes of knockout rugby and progress to the quarter-finals as aggregate winners.
That is not saying those inside Munster Rugby were not feeling the pain of last Saturday’s defeat to their dominant neighbors, just that they had to stay focused on the next task at hand. Asked if the apparently dispassionate analysis of the last weekend’s defeat was purposely at odds with the angst being shared outside of the organization by supporters and pundits, Larkham said: “I mean, Leinster are top of the table at the moment so you’re always challenging yourself against those teams, and you want to mark yourself against those teams, no different to other competitions around the world.
“The Leinster-Munster rivalry has always been there, so that’s kind of a separate one, but when Leinster are on top and we’re not on top, yeah, we kind of feel… We’re extremely disappointed in the game . Maybe I haven’t expressed that enough. We’ve had a really good review, a real honest look at ourselves.
“And yeah, we’re hurting. There’s no doubt we’re hurting. But we’ve got to move on. That’s the game that we’re in. It’s a high performance, pressure environment where you get judged on a performance, but you’ve got to let that go and you’ve got to move on straight away because if you let it linger, then it’s going to affect your next performance.
“So yeah, apologies if you feel that we’re not expressing it enough, but I guarantee you that internally, that hurt us.”
The next job, then is for Munster to channel that familiar backs to the wall mentality into delivering an improved, controlled performance capable of going one better than the 10-10 pool draw they left Sandy Park with on their first and only competitive visit to Exeter in October 2018.
“Everyone deals with it in different ways,” Larkham said. From our perspective, we’re trying to move on, we’re trying to take our lessons from that game, we’re trying to identify strategic, tactical areas, physical areas, mental areas from that game that we felt we weren’ t good enough in, and we’re trying to work on those this week.
“There’s short-term goals and long-term goals. We’ve obviously got to get stuff ready for Exeter, and then looking longer-term and knowing that we’ve got Leinster down the track (in May) and knowing we’ve got finals hopefully down the track, you’re working on little things through the week that are improving your game longer-term as well at the same time.
“So that’s our process. We go through our review process and identify things that we feel we could have done better, and we try work on those. Whether that’s in the short-term or over a longer period of time, it really depends on what the turnaround is and what your focus needs to be for the next game.”
That focus has been borne out of that Monday morning review which, Larkham reported, suggested Munster were “three to five per cent off in certain areas”.
“A little bit inconsistent throughout the game. Our discipline hurt us early in the game. They had a couple of nice tries in that 10-minute passage after half-time that hurt us as well and you look at the detail around all of that and we were just a little bit off.
“Leinster were good. I thought they played an exceptional game, kept the pressure on really well, kicked for territory really well, and incidentally just in this forum, they kicked more than us in the game.
“But they kicked really well and I think the breakdown pressure that they applied was tremendous throughout the whole game. So from our perspective we just want to continue to work on our game. We’re not changing anything, we just want to make sure that we’re a little more throughout the 80 minutes.”