Two of Munster’s most influential foreign imports are looking forward to playing leading roles as their side’s defence of the Magners League title hots up.
Head coach Tony McGahan and star centre Jean de Villiers believe the introduction of the new Play-Off system has made this year’s league particularly exciting as well as more demanding and even more competitive.
McGahan is now in his fifth season with the Irish giants having moved from his native Australia in February 2005, so he knows all about the nature of Celtic competition.
Originally appointed as defence coach, the former Brisbane Broncos rugby league professional and Queensland Schoolboys rugby union cap took over from Declan Kidney at the start of last season, leading Munster to the Magners League crown at the first time of asking.
But while the 2008/09 triumph arrived in comfortable circumstances with an eight-point gap between first and second place, things won’t be so cut and dry this time around.
And for Munster, that looks like being a good thing.
Whereas it was McGahan’s men who made the running last time out, the current campaign sees Irish rivals Leinster sitting pretty at the top of the table.
The Dubliners are seven points clear with a game in hand at the head of the standings and few bookies are offering long odds on Michael Chieka’s squad securing a first-place finish after 22 games of league action.
But while last year that would have secured the title of Magners League Champions, this time things are all set for a mouthwatering climax.
The Magners League Play-Off system will pit the top four teams against each other across successive weekends in May, with semi-finals and a Grand Final all set to decide who will be crowned ‘Celtic Kings’.
For Munster that means a maximum of five games to keep hold of their title – five games that McGahan believes come close to constituting a Grand Final in their own right.
“At this point in time, every game’s a final,” said McGahan, who takes his side to the Sportsground to face Connacht this Sunday.
“At this stage in the season, every result is important with the way the competition looks and the way the table is at this moment in time.
“Every game has its own consequences. You really need to make sure you keep winning, build confidence and make sure you consolidate where you are on the ladder. It’s all to play for.”
McGahan believes the new Play-Off system has had a positive effect on the quality of rugby being played throughout the league and the overall competitiveness of the 10 teams.
Players and coaches alike will tell you that there are no easy games nowadays – a viewpoint that McGahan himself fully endorses.
“The Play-Offs have brought something different,” added McGahan.
“I think you’ve seen that all the teams have something to play for, whether it’s Welsh and Irish sides fighting for the last Heineken Cup spot or teams still in the mix for the top four. Everyone has their own motives to keep performing each week.
“Sides seem to be winning their games at home but struggling on the road. Everyone’s in with a chance and that’s the nature of the competition this year.
“We need to continue to make sure we treat each game in its own right and we’ll see where we are from there.”
Whereas the Play-Off system is new to McGahan following four previous seasons decided on a straight league concept, building towards semi-finals and a final is a familiar routine for de Villiers.
The Springbok sensation is used to knockout rugby through the Currie Cup and the Super 14 back in the southern hemisphere and experience tells him success is all about consistency followed by the ability to peak at the business end of the season.
“I wouldn’t know it any different,” said de Villiers, who joined Munster from Western Province earlier this season.
“You don’t have any league competitions back home. Here we’ve now got a league competition with the Play-Offs at the end.
“I always knew it would be a tough competition. You have to win your home games and get a couple of away wins too. We’ve been struggling with that but, luckily, we’re in a position where we can still make the Play-Offs.
“These are the crucial games. It’s important to be performing well throughout the season and again going into the Play-Offs.
“It’s also important to try and get in the top two as well to get a home semi-final. Hopefully, we can achieve that.
“We are a team that thinks we can win everywhere we go but it does make it easier playing in front of a home crowd.”
Munster know three successive bonus-point wins should achieve that goal of a Thomond Park semi, although even that may not quite be enough.
De Villiers and co are currently three points behind the second-placed Ospreys but the two sides are scheduled to meet on Munster’s home patch on April 24.
Munster currently sit level on total points with fourth-placed Edinburgh and level on points difference with the Scottish capital outfit too.
It’s too close to call with three games left to play but Munster’s pedigree would suggest they will be in there fighting to retain their title come the semi-finals, whether that’s at home in Limerick or elsewhere in Ireland, Scotland or Wales.