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Dublin: 12 °C Tuesday 27 June, 2017
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Munster in a happy place after transformation under Rassie Erasmus

Saracens provide their greatest test yet this weekend in Dublin.

MUNSTER’S HIGH PERFORMANCE centre in UL is a happy place these days.

While professional sports teams are generally excellent at maintaining positive environments, there is no doubt that the Munster of today are in a very different mind space to this time last year.

Simon Zebo Simon Zebo at Munster training yesterday. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The dark days of last season seem like a long, long time ago and visits to the southern province’s sparkling base on the University of Limerick campus only reinforce that sense.

Keith Earls, Jean Kleyn and Tommy O’Donnell are among a group watching Wheeler Dealers on the top floor, sitting comfortably and joking with each other as they await a team meeting.

Other players are finishing up a session in the cavernous gym a floor below, getting in passing reps between their lifts as they continue to attempt to improve their skills.

Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus, the leaders of the revolution, buzz from their offices to conduct interviews, while players like Dave Kilcoyne, Duncan Williams and Andrew Conway are in demand on this particular day.

The looming figure of Jean Deysel is a relatively new face around these parts, but he appears to be part of the crew already as he wanders upstairs with Youghal man Dave O’Callaghan.

Simon Zebo is one of the most energetic figures about the place, cheerfully demanding that the meeting room be vacated in time for the squad gathering. Academy players, senior men, coaches – the mix between generations is easy and familiar.

It’s difficult to believe that Munster didn’t have a home like this until the current season, and not just for the standard of the facilities. It’s hard to believe that the squad had two training bases in two different cities.

Gym facilities Munster's HPC is a fine facility. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The manner in which the high performance centre has allowed Erasmus’ squad to bond is totally clear with each and every visit.

This week brings the pressure of a Champions Cup final and the sense of occasion will ramp up in the coming days, but all was calm and collected yesterday.

This Munster team has built a deserved confidence and even if Saracens are favourites for Saturday’s Champions Cup semi-final, the progress this season has been very real.

“It’s how we are approaching game, and how we are dealing with games as a team,” says openside flanker O’Donnell of what has changed. “We are well prepared and we know that we know our game plan down to a tee.

“We can trust our players as well. Everyone is prepared. Last week, we had a couple of late changes to the team and that was no problem, they fitted in. Angus [Lloyd] was a late call-up to the team and that was no problem. Abrie [Griesel], who came on at 50 minutes, he fitted in and played very well and was coming back from a hamstring injury.

“That shows the quality and the confidence in the players. Training this year is very very intense. The two teams that are going up against each other know that if you perform in training you are putting your hand up for selection and you are being rewarded with that selection this year. And players feel that they have opportunity to play.

“The theme of this season is how we adapt and how we keep rolling.”

Erasmus has led a philosophy of demanding pure effort from his Munster players and allowing the score to take care of itself. Work hard, prepare well and give everything – there are obviously intricacies involved but it’s jarringly simple overall.

While Munster have been calm in their approach this season, Erasmus says he won’t be looking to reel in any extra aggression or nervous energy that this semi-final week brings out in a group that haven’t been here before.

Tommy O'Donnell Tommy O'Donnell was on media duty yesterday. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The habits formed in the last nine months or so will be important again, but the Munster director of rugby recognises that something extra is needed against Sarries.

“I guess that’s the challenge, to stay on task and things that worked for us, keep on doing them,” says Erasmus. “We have to focus on Saracens, if we don’t stop the things they are doing well, we’ll lose the game. They really do things tremendously well.

“One of the things they do well is the intensity they put on whatever you’re trying to do, they match that with a lot of intensity. I must say, when I look at Saracens, apart from their tactical and individual brilliance, every game they’ve got higher intensity than the opposition.

“I guess that’s because they’ve got a squad that’s been building over years and they can rotate and lose players and the next guy will step in.

“That will probably be the biggest thing. I wouldn’t worry about our guys being overly motivated because you’re going to need that to match Saracens.”

When Munster took to the pitch at UL yesterday afternoon following their meeting, the influence of Nienaber was obvious as he directed a light session involving defence, kicking and restart strategies.

As has been the case for most of the season, Nienaber is the main vocal coaching presence out on the pitch, with Erasmus observing from a distance much of the time, getting a sense of how players react to the various cues.

Donncha O’Callaghan is on the sideline, sharing a joke here and there, while former France international prop and Springboks scrum coach Pieter de Villiers is another interesting visitor.

Former Munster player Donncha O'Callaghan watches training Donncha O'Callaghan was a spectator at training in UL. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

In the thick of the relatively lowkey action is CJ Stander, back from injury and clearly a key figure for Munster if they are to advance into the Champions Cup final this weekend. Recovered from an ankle sprain, the number eight looks hungry.

“What can you say about CJ? He’s an incredible player,” says O’Donnell. “His work and just his willingness to constantly get back on the ball is what he brings to Munster. He could make three or four carries in a row and it just seems like he’s constantly on the ball.

“I’d hate to be playing against him because it just seems like you have to tackle him the whole time, he just keeps getting up again.

“He brings a great energy and his personality is incredible. That’s what he brings to Munster, his great energy and a willingness to carry ball and be a physical threat to teams. I think that’s what teams look at when he’s playing.”

It appears that Conor Murray, a key figure, will miss out this weekend, but Rory Scannell was on the pitch yesterday walking in behind the team but clearly part of the first-team plans, while Darren Sweetnam is expected to be available too.

Munster will need all hands on deck as they face into what Erasmus is certain is the greatest challenge since he has joined.

“I think Saracens started out as a team who suffocated and strangled teams out of life and hope and belief during matches,” says Erasmus of this weekend’s opposition.

CJ Stander CJ Stander is back for the biggest game of the season. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“Now they’ve developed into a team that does that, but when they’re on attack they have these almost rugby-league mini moves which seem to come off, then matching that with a great kicking game and great finishers.

“They are one of the most complete teams, I’m talking Southern Hemisphere with Super Rugby, the Crusaders, those kinds of teams, the Brumbies at their best.

“They are right up there and I think the way they’ve contracted and balanced their squad with foreign players and building momentum, squad size, that’s the team everybody aspires to be like at this stage.”

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