Munster’s Mission (Virtually) Impossible

April 30th, 2011. Amlin Challenge Cup, semi-final, Munster vs Harlequins, Thomond Park.

Munster had just come through a joyous quarter final in Brive and had juggernaut-esque smoke coming off them. The woeful efforts away to London Irish, the Ospreys and Toulon earlier in the season were forgotten, and the hubris of 2009 was present in the pre-game description of Quins as “a middling side from an average league”.

In the event, Quins battered Munster in the first half, and were unfortunate to go in only 7 points ahead. They withstood the expected onslaught to prevail 20-12. The lineups that day were:

Munster: Jones; Howlett, Mafi, Warwick, Earls; O’Gara, Murray; du Preez, Varley, Buckley; O’Callaghan, O’Driscoll; Leamy, Wallace, Coughlan. Subs: Sherry, Horan, Hayes, O’Connell, Ryan, Stringer, Tuitupou, Murphy

Harlequins: Brown; Camacho, Lowe, Ooooooooooh Turner-Hall, Monye; Evans, Care; Marler, Gray, Johnston; Kohn, Robson; Fa’asavalu, Robshaw, Easter. Subs: Cairns, Jones, Lambert, Vallejos, Skinner, Moore, Clegg, Chisholm.

The Munster line-up, and particularly the bench, was ligind-tastic, and Munster had only one defeat in European rugby in Thomond Park at that stage, to an Iain Humphreys’-led Leicester side in 2007, when the Liginds were already-qualified. That renowned Munster-hater/non-homer (delete as appropriate) Romaine Poite in charge in the middle.

The final scoreline was genuinely surprising – no-one thought Quins had the poise at that stage in their development to sack fortress Thomond, despite Munster having started something of a rebuild three months earlier. That they did with ease raised quite a few eyebrows on both sides of the Irish Sea, and was an early harbinger of the fortunes of both sides in the interim.

Since then, Quins have gone on to lift the Amlin Cup (in most fortuitous style, robbing Stade Francais blind in the Cardiff City Stadium), then followed that up with a Premiership win – they started like a train during the World Cup, wobbled a bit, then finished very strongly to beat Leciester in a riveting final. In Europe last year, they bottled it in Galway to leave a not-so-rampant Toulouse to lose limply to Embra in the quarters.This season, they cruised through a weak pool (Biarritz, Connacht, Zebre) to qualify as number one seeds for the quarters.

As for Munster, they lifted that years’ Magners League with a win over a shagged-out Leinster in Thomond Park. The emotional public farewell to Paul Derbyshire that day will not be forgotten by anyone who missed it. The following year, they won all six games in a powdery pool, but were disposed of in their citadel by an Ulster side that tackled everything that moved and took their scores, but were by no means a superpower. It was like Ireland’s defeat in Murrayfield this year, with the scoring sequences reversed.

That they got thrashed by the Ospreys in the Pro12 semi-final merely completed the unhappy end to the unhappy Tony McGahan era. Munster fans were glad to see him go, and this year was hoped to be something of a new dawn. Sadly, Munster look, if anything, even more muddled then they did 12 months ago – the desire to play a more expansive game, with forwards carrying and offloading, clashes with an ideology married to muck and bullets, grinding forward play and trench warfare. The players have got more and more confused as time has gone on this season, and their lamentable effort in their 50-burger against Glasgow the other night was hapless at best.

If one looks at the Munster side today, it’s one that is two years into the transition started after the Toulon defeat, but it doesn’t look much better, not yet anyway. The arrival of BJ Botha and the graduation of Donnacha Ryan to the first team means the tight five is probably stronger now, but the Paul O’Connell shaped-hole at the centre of the pack still needs a (fully fit) Paul O’Connell shaped-solution. The back-row is the area of the biggest change, and specifically the flanks. Peter O’Mahony is a fine and talented player, but as a Heineken Cup-level blindside, even a Denis Leamy in the twilight of his too-short career is still a better option, and David Wallace over Tommy O’Donnell/Niall Ronan is a no-brainer. The lack of brawn in the current Munster edition is probably best-illustrated by the change on the flanks – at least if Leamy and Wallace felt like resorting to rumbling, they had the beef and skills to do it, but O’Mahony and O’Donnell, at this end of their careers, rarely dominate games.

In the halves, Conor Murray has matured from Academy graduate to a fine player, and is now undisputed Ireland starter. He still seems to play a little too much to instruction, carrying a lot last year, and box-kicking too much in this years Six Nations. In time, he will grow the experience and confidence to run a game as he sees it. If Ronan O’Gara regains the 10 shirt, it will be to the groans of many Munster fans – Father Time has finally caught up with him, and, as with Ireland, he is playing himself out of the team rapidly. So Murray/Keatley – promising, but down a level on Murray/O’Gara from 2 years ago.

Further out, Munster are fairly similar – Downey/Laulala is a solid centre partnership with a hint of creativity, rather like Warwick/Mafi was, but with the invention outside instead of in. The back three is almost the same, but given Earls is getting over injuries and has zero form, plus Howlett getting on a bit, they are dying out for Simon Zebo to return.

So Munster are a clear level down on the team that lost two years ago, and still very much a work in progress. What of Harlequins? The team that lined out at Saracens last weekend had 11 of the starters, and the exact same spine of Brown, Turner-Hall, Evans, Care, Easter, Robshaw, Robson, Johnston and Marler. Two years on, the team is familiar with silverware and is now confident and experienced.

If the graphs of the two sides were level at the last meeting (which is generous to the Irish side), they have diverged dramatically since. It will take a massive reversal of form and class for Munster to prevail, and it might even be their best European result of all time. Quins have lost three games on the bounce, but only against Saracens were they at full-strength, and there is no disgrace in that.  Munster’s recent form is particularly alarming, with recent thrashings handed out by Treviso and, most recently, Galsgow.  Up until now, most of the focus has been on Munster’s inability to meet the demands of Penney’s wide-wide attacking game, suddenly they look on the point of giving up, with marshmallow tackling  and atrocious linespeed highly conspicuous.

If it weren’t for the suspicion that Munster simply won’t roll over and die, this game has all the appearances of a turkey-shoot – but surely Munster will actually tackle in this match, and will be awoken from their tailspin by the threat of humiliation. If not, it’s truly time to take out the rosary beads.

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22 Comments

  1. Good piece, you know Munster are in trouble when Thornley rolls out the “you never know with Munster, they have the history” line.

    If Munster had a fully fit Zebo and Earls alongside an O Mahony, Ryan and Murray that had been bedded in the past few weeks they might have a sniff but for the likely Munster team that will be named the majority of the players are either past it or not ready.

    Not having enough beef makes the exclusion of CJ Stander all the more bizarre, I thought a Stander, O Donnell and O Mahony back row would have been the way to go.

  2. Joe

     /  April 2, 2013

    “Munster’s recent form is particularly alarming, with recent thrashings handed out by Treviso and, most recently, Galsgow”

    When did these deafeats happen again, was it not long ago? 🙂

  3. thoughtless

     /  April 2, 2013

    Long time reader, first time etc. I’d disagree with your characterisation of last Friday’s game. Hidden in among the three intercept tries and the abominable missed tackles (most notably by Laulala, who has not impressed a single Munster fan I know this season, notwithstanding your sanguine assessment above) was a pretty creditable performance in attack. The maul was absolutely dominant when it was used in the first half of the game. Were it not for awful, awful intercepted passes from Laulala and Duncan Williams, Munster would have been 14-6 ahead at half-time, and who knows where the game could have gone from there.

    A key factor in the positive first half performance was O’Gara providing more variety and pace to his game than he has for perhaps more than a season and a half. In particular, when we were producing quick ball, he played very flat to the gain line. I have been one of those supporters groaning when he was preferred over Keatley time and again this season, but his performances over the last two weeks against Connacht and Glasgow were quite accomplished, and he will almost certainly start against Quins. (Keatley looked very dangerous ball in hand when he came on, with one Sonny Bill-esque offload and one scything break in midfield, so that’s useful too.)

    If you take the Connacht game and the Glasgow game, and you read the recent comments from the players on the game plan now making sense to them (James Downey described it in weird, evangelical terms: “The fog has been lifted from our eyes!” Hallelujah?), then I’d suggest that Munster are currently looking pretty decent in possession. Three tries in Scotstoun is actually a very good return; six tries conceded is not. I simply don’t believe we’ll defend that slackly again, or throw that many intercept passes. It was completely out of character. The team seemed to have given up. They won’t do that on Sunday. I’m vaguely hopeful of a big upset, but I’d settle for a big performance.

    Looking forward to your Ulster preview, and I hope you can get around to doing some more of the kind of forensic analysis you did on the Irish back row against France.

    • I’d agree with a lot of what you said there, Thoughtless. For the first half hour of the game [bar two absolutely unforced intercept tries], I felt that Munster were playing their best rugby of the season since their good outing up in Ravenhill back in September. ROG varied his game well, the maul worked, they won collisions and got quick ruck ball time after time.
      Hapless passes for intercepts are simply hapless passes for intercepts, I think it’s stretching it to blame it on anything bar poor decisions from the players in question. They let Glasgow into the game incredibly cheaply, which can only be disheartening.

      Laulala was directly at fault for three tries [the first minute intercept, missing the one-on-one with Mark Bennett for the BP try and then getting snake-charmed by Hogg waving the ball around on halfway for the fifth one] and there’s no doubt that Foley will have read him the riot act at the review, All Black or not. I don’t think we’ll see such a calamitous defensive performance from him again.

    • If we’re using the Munster-Connacht game as a reason for hope, Munster are in a dark place. They weren’t that good against Connacht, a couple of standouts like POC and.O’Donnell asides; Connacht were absolutely appalling. Despite getting halfway to the bonus point in the first quarter, Munster didn’t press home their advantage. In the second half Connacht stupidly turned down 3 kicks at goal, which would have put a less glossy look on the scoreline, while at the end Munster huffed and puffed and failed to get the bonus point.

    • That’s a fair point – but the dive in the second half was incomprehensible a week out from a HEC knock-out game. I can’t see them collapsing like that again either, but I’m struggling to convince myself it isn’t symptomatic of something deeper – good team who know what they are doing don’t simply throw in the towel.

      I had a chat with my brother yesterday and we both failed utterly to make a cohesive argument about how Munster could beat this Harlequins outfit, which largely consists of honest yeoman (and Nuck Evans). Are Munster that bad? Or are we missing something?

      • mcecotter

         /  April 2, 2013

        I think the team was sucker punched by giving away the two intercept tries, and they couldn’t motivate themselves to reach the physical intensity needed to stay in it against a Glasgow team who were scrapping like dogs in the second half. That was compounded by shocking individual errors in defence in the second half (cf. the points on Laulala above). They knew, after all, that the league was gone either way, and it’s very difficult to get geed up when you have nothing to play for but the performance itself.

        As for what’s necessary to win, and at the risk of sounding trite: an 80-minute performance which brings together the better aspects of our play this season. The ingredients of that are too many to list, but broadly speaking, it means the attacking game has to click as well as it did in the first 30 minutes last week (or at the start of the season), but more importantly, we have to bring the physical intensity we saw at the start of the match against Racing away, and throughout the home game against Saracens. Unfortunately, asking for that is much the same as asking for divine intervention, given our seeming inability to play for 80 minutes this season (which I’m inclined to put down to the youth throughout the team).

        Harsh on ‘Quins, by the way. They may appear to be honest yeomen, but they have an outstanding offloading game when they get going.

        • Maybe honest yeomen is harsh – they are certainly a side who know what they are doing, work as a team and maximise their resources. But they aren’t world-beaters. Huge respect for them though – London clubs don’t have it easy and they’re a great bunch

      • Amiga500

         /  April 2, 2013

        Aside from Nuck, they do have the hugely admirable, jolly good bloke, Captain Amer… Captain Fantas… Captain Chris in there.

        But to be brutally honest – Quins probably wouldn’t need to have too much about them to beat that Munster team at the minute – which is more a reflection of how far Munster’s star has fallen than how much Quins have risen. Just 12 months ago, Munster were favourites to beat Ulster in Thomond in the QF – which they certainly wouldn’t be if it was a repeat fixture this weekend.

  4. zdm

     /  April 2, 2013

    Munster’s slow decline is hard to watch.

    If they could take any lesson from history, a look at Ulster’s slide from European Champions to the pre-Humphri-lution side (that was almost dumped as a top tier province by the IRFU) should serve as a wake up call.

    This was a slide that involved the slow decline of a number of key players (if Munster has liginds, Ulster had laaajennds) who were not adequately replaced until the side was so deep in the muck that a complete restructuring was required. It also included Ulster being able to cobble together a last-minute Magners league win (Humphries drop goal from half way off both posts, one of my favourite rugby moments) and a Celtic cup victory.

    Anyway, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if Munster tanked it this season to give Penney et al the confidence to finally strip the dead wood before the whole thing rots?

    • Amiga500

       /  April 2, 2013

      Hmmm – how deep would you suggest they dig?

      -Is the Cork/Limerick dual basing still a feasible practice these days?
      -Is the current malaise just a hangover from Deccie (aye, remember him) completely neglecting the academy?
      -In two years time, will POM and TOD have bulked up to the levels required to really step into the ligindary boots of Quinlan and Wallace?
      – Chief Ligind – Radge – is on his last legs – will he be cast adrift from the raft in the close season?
      – General Ligind – POC – is also nearing the end – who is gonna even try and fill those particular size 79 boots?

    • ORiordan

       /  April 3, 2013

      Ulster’s resurgence was linked sorting things out off the pitch as well – getting rid of the amateur committee men and previous CEO who were so worried about doing something wrong, they ended up doing nothing.

  5. Connachtexile

     /  April 2, 2013

    Firstly I have to take you up on this “This season, they cruised through a weak pool (Biarritz, Connacht, Zebre) to qualify as number one seeds for the quarters.”

    Tread carefully sir tread very carefully.

    As for Harlequins while they might be ‘honest yeomen’ they are honest yeomen that play to a system that was built specifically for them unlike Munster and Penney who is trying to squeeze a traditionally forward orientated team into a Super 15 style of play. An while I agree with 90% of what you say above the Munster centre partnership is a disaster. Lualala has being a shadow of the player he was this year and while POC has made a big difference since he’s come back I can’t see it being enough to beat Harlequins. Hope I’m wrong though.

  6. Manga's League

     /  April 2, 2013

    Calling it now…. Quins 16 Munster 21

    • Red Mist

       /  April 3, 2013

      Right on Manga.

      I’m sick of all the nay sayers, having a go at this great team. Sure Leinster couldn’t even score against an Ulster side that could barely defend last week! Ulster are on the way out, haven’t a hope against Saracens.
      Leinster can’t even make the Heineken Cup play offs and well Connacht seem to exist as a feeder club for Leinster, and so won’t get the chance to develop!

      Munster are the top team in Ireland at the moment,and with the return of POC we’ll be unstopable! The match this weekend might be close, but the lads will scrape through with sheer bravery and determination as they’ve done so many times before!
      Once Earls and Zebo are back in the fold we’ll be on our way to another Heineken Cup.

  7. Yossarian

     /  April 2, 2013

    Munster used to be a side that just didn’t know how to lose and never felt a game was up till the final whistle.They had sheer bloody mindedness that was a nightmare to play against.I don’t know if its that the mystic has been lifted or else the new crop of players just lack that same inner resolve. Earls,murray,POM are playing with an ireland side that throws away leads. Have the poor defeats outlined above under McCann and Penny created a squad riddled with self doubt?
    Undoubted drop in quality from an academy that is failing to produce players adequate to replace the aforementioned stars. Quick fixes with a cheque book won’t work.The jokes about Leinster “B” are already starting.
    Are these factors contributing to produce a side that just lacks that real belief that they are destined to win?
    They are capable of a big one off win and wouldn’t be shocked if they put in a big (if unlikely) win at the weekend but the reality is even if that happens days like that will become less and less common if Munster continue on their current path.Their failure to regularly produce high quality players like Zebo as opposed to flawed/adequate players their academy is currently churning out.

  8. Good stuff. We have them all lulled into a false sense of security now!

  9. Yossarian

     /  April 3, 2013

    Conor George providing some evidence that Munster mentality of a “winning culture” might not be there. that said it is from Conor George…..
    “It won’t be admitted to but the league is not what Munster teams are judged on. It’s about the Heineken Cup and everything else just fills time between those games”

  10. Based on the double header against Saracens – losing by 6 points away – I don’t think a Munster win is inconceivable, as I rate Sarries as significantly better than Quins. I also think Quins are in a bad run of form at the moment (as are Munster, of course). You’d go with home advantage, but I don’t think it’ll be the turkey shoot this blog seems to expect it to be.

    • I wouldn’t say we expect it to be a turkey shoot – we think Munster will drag a performance out of somewhere. But it were, say, Cardiff, it *would* be a turkey shoot

  11. pete (buachaill on eirne)

     /  April 4, 2013

    Interesting clip on RTE of ROG talking about Ireland and Munster’s poor standards, Deccie and being dropped for the Scottish game. He comes across even more driven than I’d previously thought, he has a sheer bloody mindedness quality to him.

    Thornley, Wood and a few others on off the Ball were expecting a bit of rout.

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