“When we cross that line we got to be nasty. We’ve got to be horrible bastards. For 80 minutes, we’ve got to do what it takes to win. You’ve got to look into their fucking eyes and want to kill ‘em. You want to have that ball, and every time you have that ball you want to run over the fuckers. When I cross that white line I become somebody else. You’ve got to become somebody else or you get hurt.”
Sometimes we can get a little wrapped up in the technical details of rugby – the power plays, the patterns, the formations – I’m as guilty as any. Rugby is a cruel, physical game first and foremost. It’s a fight dictated by the direction of the ball. Wherever the ball is (and sometimes where it’s not) it’s war in practice. It’s intimidation, physicality, violence, a fight. When you forget those core tenets, you lose – every single time. High stakes rugby is no place for nice lads because high stakes rugby chews nice lads to pieces.
Munster v Saracens is about as high stakes as you can get. In fact, there’s only one stage where the stakes are higher but to get there, you have to win here. And nice lads won’t get that job done.
That isn’t to say that Munster lads aren’t sound to their family, friends and fans either side of those 80 minutes. Far from it. But the key to Munster’s big wins down through the years has been that metamorphosis from “nice guys” to “psychopaths”, all induced by that white line.
Scottie Quinnell has the right of it. You must become “somebody else”. Somebody cruel. Somebody vicious.
A bad guy.
Where Does It End?
The old saying goes that “nice guys finish last”, but it’s not quite true. In reality, nobody cares where the nice guy finishes, not really. On the rugby pitch, the ruthless do the winning. The nice guys wonder about what might have been.
Just like the Heineken Cup final in 2002.
When Leicester won with the “Hand of Back”, Munster learned the real lesson about winning, from one of the best. Rugby is what you get away with and nothing else matters once you win. You could bitch and moan about Back’s “cheating” or you could realise that all that caterwauling wouldn’t change who had the cup. He did what he had to do to win and he didn’t give a fish’s tit about anything else. All that mattered was the win. Munster learned that the real winning is done when you’re in that dark, cynical place.
And that game was the real catalyst for what Munster would become. A nice guy wouldn’t do what Neil Back did, but then a nice guy might have conceded a try off that scrum and lost. The lesson was clear and it ended up being a lesson that Munster learned well. It would bring two Heineken Cups. It’s a lesson that will serve Munster again this week.
The Hard Road
This weekend, Munster face the best team in the competition. Saracens are outstanding. They have quality players everywhere you look and they’re excellently coached. Quite frankly, they are at the apex of their development as an elite side.
Yet I wouldn’t want Munster to be playing anyone else this weekend. People asked me who I would have fancied in this semi-final and it was always Saracens in the Aviva. Not because I feared Glasgow – why would Munster fear Glasgow in 2017? – but because anything worth doing is worth doing the hard way. Beating Glasgow for a fifth time in Edinburgh would have been a nice path to the final, but there’s no glory in it.
Why would you want a soft European Cup win? If you haven’t beaten the best to get there, it’s worthless. To be the best, you have to beat the best. Saracens are the best in Europe, so that’s who I wanted. Now we have them. We have a measuring stick.
Lose, and you’ve lost to the best. Win, though, and you’ve beaten the best. That’s where the real glory is. No excuses, either way.
To beat Saracens, Munster will have to turn this into a bloodbath. Sarries won’t have a problem with that, I’m sure, but when a game reaches that intensity, in an arena filled as it will be Munster supporters, strange things can happen. The results predicted on paper can come undone on blood stained grass.
To paraphrase Lt. Aldo Raine;
We will be cruel to Saracens, and through our cruelty they will know who we are.
And maybe, just maybe, if Munster can make that cruelty stick, it’ll be another win for the bad guys.