'I don’t think we should be the underdogs when we go into games'

Rassie Erasmus and Peter O’Mahony are keen for Munster to enjoy semi-final week before facing Saracens.

MUNSTER’S MENTALITY NOW is utterly different to what it was like 12 months ago.

Many other events and people have helped the shape the improvement, but director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has been the leader.

Munster walk back after CJ Stander scores a try Munster have been a slick machine in Europe so far. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The South African has freed his players from a great deal of the pressure that had previously weighed upon them, instilling a philosophy that allows Munster to take some risks on the pitch and places more emphasis on sheer effort than results.

Munster’s players are enjoying themselves again.

There are many strands to Erasmus’ system, of course, and Saturday’s Champions Cup semi-final will be a true test of how Munster stand up mentally under the most intense scrutiny.

Saracens are a cut above what the province have faced so far this season and are favourites to advance into the final, but Erasmus isn’t happy for Munster to simply embrace the ‘underdog’ tag that others would willingly accept.

We will give ourselves a proper chance and see how far we have grown in nine months, but I am not one of those guys who always want to be the underdog,” said Erasmus on Saturday after Munster beat Ulster.

“I don’t believe in that, I don’t think we should be the underdogs when we go into games. I don’t think you have to be the underdog to win a game.”

Whatever about being uncomfortable accepting that tag, Erasmus is realistic about the quality Mark McCall’s men will bring to Dublin.

“They are double champions so I don’t think anyone can argue with that. That’s the team everyone has to aspire to be, on and off the field.

“It’s a well known fact everything they do on and off the field – player management, coaching staff, player recruitment, all of that – they are ahead of other teams.

Rassie Erasmus Erasmus has been impressive in his first season with Munster. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“And the pressure situations they have been used to the last five, six years so I think they are the team to beat.”

Two years ago, it was Saracens who ended Munster’s European hopes, knocking them out at the pool stage with a resounding win at Allianz Park.

Munster captain Peter O’Mahony recalls the bitter feelings of that day, but stresses that his squad have grown and improved since.

“I think we have been through a huge amount since then over the last few years and we have learned a lot,” said O’Mahony. “We’ve learned from a few fairly serious lessons we’ve gotten and, look, time moves on and you have to kick on.

You’ve got to remember that too, how much it hurt. That was stomach churning that defeat. As you know, we always pride ourselves on Europe and how we do in it and we let ourselves down over the past couple of years and that particular one was a tough one to take.

“It is a different group now, it is a different animal. As I have said, we have learned a lot of lessons and we go about our business now a different way.

“Under the new coaching staff it’s – not that it is relaxed – we kinda just get on with the week, and we have put an emphasis on enjoying our rugby. There are only four teams left in it, anything can happen.

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“These things don’t come around very often and we haven’t been in one for a long time, so you’ve got to enjoy it and enjoy the week leading up to it as well.

“I think we’ve gotten on top of ourselves a couple of times and it has probably gone against us.”

Billy Holland celebrates Munster are keen to enjoy semi-final weekend. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

O’Mahony echoes Erasmus in underlining the quality Saracens have in their squad and the rounded manner in which they often dismantle teams, but this week is all about Munster in his eyes.

There will be the usual heavy load of analysis and training in the build-up to ensure that Munster are at their peak for Saturday, but O’Mahony keeps going back to the importance of enjoying these days.

It is difficult to do because there is so much work to do. Obviously, you are playing against a side with the quality Saracens have, they are the number one team in Europe over the past two or three seasons in everything they do, both on and off the pitch.

“They are the standard bearers. We are going to have our work seriously cut out, but you know, I have been in semi-final places before, not that we have beaten ourselves during the week, but you just let them pass you by and all of a sudden it’s game day and they are short enough as it is, so you have to embrace it and enjoy it.

“These are the things you are going to look back on. Whether you win, lose or draw at the weekend, you look back on these weekends because they are obviously the biggest weekends of you life and you want to look back on them with fond memories.”

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Murray Kinsella

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