Munster will bring the muscle memory from their memorable win to URC final
By LIAM DEL CARME
● Graham Rowntree’s experience in the Mother City is as capricious as the Cape Doctor.
His time there as Munster head coach and in a previous life as an apprentice England prop produced distinct peaks and troughs — not that he philosophises professional sport’s great wheel of fortune.
In the quarterfinals of the 1995 Rugby World Cup Rowntree, while a non-playing member of the squad on the day, watched Rob Andrew drop the defending champion Wallabies from the tournament. A week later, while rooted to the substitutes’ bench at the same ground, he witnessed Jonah Lomu trample England’s hopes of qualifying for consecutive finals.
“I was on the bench and back then there were no tactical substitutions and I managed to do that for three years behind Jason Leonard. That was a special day, the making of a legend. The birth of a giant of the game,” said Rowntree.
Dual purpose win
Last month Rowntree was back in Cape Town and presided over a performance that served a dual purpose by the final whistle. Munster’s win didn’t just re-energise their URC campaign, they condemned the Stormers to a first home defeat this season. While belief grew in one camp, the other suddenly had something to ponder.
“I have no doubt the Stormers would have looked at that performance and worked out where they won’t let us score tries again,” said Rowntree.
“The Stormers challenge teams. They move the ball. They have a very quick rush defence. They get the ball to width exceptionally well. They have a powerful pack and have a good breakdown. They present challenges across the park. I have nothing but respect for the way they play the game and I’m a big fan of John Dobson (Stormers head coach).
“We have to be at our very best if we are going to get close to beating this team,” stressed the Munster mentor.
Putting down his stamp
It is hard to look past Munster’s recent win in Cape Town as their seminal moment this season. They looked far from Championship material earlier this year. Rowntree, who took over from former Springbok assistant coach Johann van Graan, was still bedding down systems and did not have his Test players when they stuttered early on.
He readily admits doubts crept in. “I’ve been seeing the good work go in and great engagement between players and the new coaching team. I was confident we’d get somewhere. Having said that, we got nowhere yet.
“I was really sorry to see Johann leave but every coach has their own way of doing things. We haven’t tried to reinvent the wheel, but change how we train and our philosophy on the field.”
Rowntree may look and sound Old School but he introduced change.
“I wanted to change how we attacked and how we challenge teams. How often we kicked. It took a while to get that embedded with players. We will find out in the final how far we’ve come.”
It however required a rethink on defence to spark Munster’s season back to life.
Things, they thought, were going well until they lost to Glasgow Warriors before they conceded 50 points in 33-degree heat in Durban in the Champions Cup.
“Against Glasgow we got punched on the nose. It was our second game in a six-week period and they stopped us at the breakdown. Legitimately too, and we couldn’t stop them as they played an exciting brand of rugby,” recalled Rowntree.
He called it a sobering occasion. They fought back in the second half but still lost.
“We stripped our game down, particularly around defence. Denis Leamy (defence coach) did a great job because he saw some chinks in our armour that we weren’t covering well enough in the working week,” said Rowntree about the fortnight following their 50-35 defeat to the Sharks in the Champions Cup.
Having shored that up, they went to Cape Town and delivered a performance Rowntree now reflects on as the launchpad for their high flying belief in their game. “Belief is everything in sport,” he said matter of factly.
The Munster coach does not believe momentum was lost in the two weeks between the semifinals and final. In fact, it probably suits Munster from a travel perspective and gives the players who are on the mend time to recover.
Rowntree said Munster limped into the quarterfinals against Glasgow but it proved another significant momentum builder. “We were doing it tough on the road at these great places. But it all stems back to our performance against the Stormers. That was the first stone in a series of stepping stones to get us to where we are.”
In many ways victory in Cape Town next week would bring things back full circle for Rowntree.
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