Standing Alone

The received wisdom is that Munster are supposedly the third best province in Ireland, but clearly they haven’t bothered to pay it much attention – perhaps giving belated truth to Gerry’s assertion that ‘Ulster are the better team, but Munster are the better province’. For the second year running they find themselves in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup, carrying the hopes of the nation, while their more heralded rivals to the north and east will be watching events on their television sets. Quite the achievement given the supposed transition they are in. Sign whoever that coach is up for as long as he likes! Or ditch him and promote the local hero, whatever.

Munster swatted aside a desperate Toulouse effort over Saturday brunch in effervescent fashion. Toulouse were hanging on at half-time but two early second half tries won the game A home win always appeared likely. Toulouse were poor and didn’t appear to have any belief that they could win in Thomond Park, but to score six tries in a Heineken Cup quarter final against anyone is impressive.

More impressive still is that they did it without their captain, Peter O’Mahony. He was replaced after just 18 minutes, but this was the day CJ Stander emphatically announced himself as a Munster player. The South African backrow has had an enigmatic, slightly puzzling Munster career to date, providing brief glimpses of a rarefied talent which has had tongues wagging in the stands, but appearing to struggle to gain the faith of his coaches. Now we know what he can do. Can this be the start of something wonderful?

The two wings deserve special mention. Keith Earls looks sharp as a tack and Simon Zebo looks like he has taken Joe Schmidt’s pointers on board. Rather than sulking or whining to the media, he has come out and spoken of his determination to improve certain aspects of his game, and is doing his talking on the pitch. He scored the fifth try in the face of some pretty tepid defending, but it was all started by him doing something pretty mundane: aggressively chasing a restart. Jamie Heaslip, when he was rotated out of the team in the 2009 Six Nations, told Declan Kidney he would be 100% positive in the lead-up to the game and wouldn’t allow being dropped to negatively affect him in any way. He’d train harder than ever. In the event, he was brought on after 20 minutes and scored the winning try, and was back in the team for the final game. Simon Zebo appears to have the same attitude.

The win and the manner of it also highlighted the importance of getting a home quarter-final. Contrast with Leinster’s trip to Toulon, a similarly comfortable win for the home side. Flip the venues, though and it’s a different ball game altogether. The home-away swing effect is always big in rugby, but particularly so where the French are concerned, what with the spirit of the bell-tower and all that. Leinster will be left to ruminate on a carless defeat to Northampton Saints, having put 40 points on them the previous week.

So, on Munster march to the semi-finals, and this time they have to go away. Can they win? They won’t go down without a fight, but they look like outsiders (again) – Toulon are clear favourites in Marseille, and the reality is that Munster have had a bit of an armchair ride to this point. None of their pool opponents will be partaking in the inaugural RCC next season if the leaked qualification rules come to pass – six from each league (including one from each Rabo country), one from the HEC/RCC champions league, and the winner of a Franglais playoff. Contrast with all three of Ulster and Leinster’s pool opponents likely to be back (admittedly Treviso by default). Of all eight quarter-finalists, Toulouse are the only ones hanging on to qualify, clinging on to the final French automatic spot. Here’s hoping their excellent pack and brilliant outside backs can trouble the beastly behemoth Toulonnais the same way they troubled the bosh-happy behemoth Toulousain.

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44 Comments

  1. Yossarian

     /  April 9, 2014

    I think munster have every chance of winning. they will be underdogs but it is within their compass to win this one. Toulon put in their best performance of the season motivated by Fear of the Leinster name and the possibility of losing in front of their home fans. Leinster were well below their best. The lineout maul(under utilised by Leinster) was effective against them and i don’t think Munster will miss as many tackles or drop as much ball.
    I might be against Munster in the Rabo but with money bag french teams and Saracens left in Europe i think everyone will be rooting for Munster.
    Is the lineout maul a glimpse of the future under Foley or the blend of forward dominance followed by the width and incision? either way Penney said it was a three year project. two years in and two semi finals, if they fall short it really seems like madness that he wasn’t able to complete the final year and perhaps the final step of the cycle.

    • I can’t see any reason (other than pure provincial bitterness) that Irish rugby fans wouldn’t be behind Munster against the likes of Toulon or Saracens. I have a soft spot for Clermont, having made a few friends over the years with some of their mob, but the other two are a no-brainer. Munster all the way.

      Sadly, I can’t see that happening. Leinster have a better set of players than Munster at the moment, I believe, but Munster are playing as a better team in Europe. Possibly due to superior coaching, or just that the HC always brings out the best in the men in red. They’ll undoubtedly do better against Toulon than we did (which was a forgettable performance to say the least) but I still think Toulon will have too much power. Here’s hoping though!

      • Leinsterlion

         /  April 9, 2014

        Coaching, MOC has been found wanting all season, Toulon was his Waterloo.

  2. curates_egg

     /  April 9, 2014

    You can legitimately say Munster have had an easy draw and that this year’s Toulouse are a shadow of former great sides from that club…BUT the emphatic manner of the victory is definitely a surprise and worthy of serious praise. Despite Toulouse being weak this year, they have a strong club tradition and pride, so you wouldn’t expect them to capitulate in that manner.

    Having only seen the highlights (was in Toulon), Munster looked really clinical. Made me jealous as a Leinster fan, as that clinical approach is what Leinster fans became used to in the 3 Schmidt years. This year has been a real step backward for Leinster in this regard and, while missing key playing personnel (Sexton and Nacewa through departure; O’Brien through injury; BOD through finally not quite being at this pace), the greatest loss seems to be Schmidt and the coherence he brought. As all the one-eyed Munster fans seem to have ruled out warming to him (or Sexton) for Ireland, can we please have him (them) back? 😉

    Toulon have such a phenomenal squad of players and such a powerful side. When they actually click and play (as they did on Sunday), they are unstoppable. I have watched them a bit over the past few years and they always seem to look far more ‘awesome’ without Jonny (for all the stability he brings). I was worried when he went off. They also have a tendency to blow teams away in the second half (and just plod through first halves), so I was even more worried that we weren’t ahead.

    If Toulon show up for the semis (and that will depend on the Top14 situation, as this is definitely their priority), the only way to beat them will be to eliminate all mistakes, be accurate and try and build up a lead in the first half. You won’t win by hanging in there.

    PS It’s great to see Earls continuing the form he had earlier in the season. He was the best back in Landsdowne road and from the highlights I have seen (and Murray Kinsella’s review of the breakdown), he looked to be in phenomenal form again on Saturday.

    • Speaking for the cyclopean Munster fans, there is absolutely no way I want Schmidt back at Leinster! More winning for Ireland and more Matt O’Connor at Leinster please, we might eventually beat you in Dublin with him in the hot seat… On which, I see he’s had a right old whine at the NIQ rules in today’s papers, as well as made very clear that he doesn’t think Madigan has the game management required to start games. Are any Leinster fans warming to him? Seems very much a Leicester-type coach.

      As for Earls, I was blown away by that clear-out on Tekori while watching it live; it was absolutely beastly, and that was before I even realised it was Tekori! I thought Dave Kearney was useful for Leinster, but you can really see the pressure coming on from Earls and Bowe for that 11 jersey in future. Not to mention Luke Fitz, Ferg, and the other Munster winger…

      • Yossarian

         /  April 9, 2014

        been trying to give MOC the benefit of the doubt(any side would miss SOB,Sexton,Isa) and accept we were never going to have a coach of the caliber of the man he is replacing but i think he isn’t playing to Leinsters traditional core strengths and seems tactically naive with some of the approaches to games. First time as the head coach and perhaps struggling with the role.

        • curates_egg

           /  April 9, 2014

          That’s what it smells like unfortunately. He was never going to be as good as Schmidt but there have been steps backwards in areas (defense and offense) which none of the personnel losses explain. I think fans need to rally around and support the team (and him) for the rest of the season but we badly need a defense coach and we to recruit one or two players. However, we also need someone to get O’Connor to stop undermining the talent we have. I don’t think starting Madigan would have changed the result on Sunday but I do think both the selection of outhalf and the way he played/was instructed to play was unconvincing/naïve.

          • Yossarian

             /  April 9, 2014

            agree about the undermining the talent we have,his irish times article alluded to his frustration at not being able to sign guys who would like to come in. the selection of Tuquiri would suggest he isn’t prepared to give youth its fling(and fanning it could be argued is a conservative selection). Robbie Deans available perhaps!?!give him till the end of the year but even winning the Rabo is not the kind of success Leinster expect.

          • curates_egg

             /  April 9, 2014

            Ach, I see nothing to be benefited in getting rid of O’Connor. To some external observers, he is not managing this transition season well but he clearly needs some support. Also, we are top of the Rabo, so it is hard to ask for more. If we are to be a force in Europe next season, we will need to make signings on both the coaching staff and the playing staff. Clearly, it would have been easier to do this if we had secured a home semi in Landsdowne road.

          • D6W

             /  April 9, 2014

            I found MOC’s reported comments about Ian Madigan a bit distasteful. Gopperth (who I think IS a good player) did not have a good game, so he chose to criticise Madigan’s game management? I don’t think that is going to go down well in the dressing room.

            Also, he started Madigan in the last 4 Rabo 12 games. If he was going to start Gopperth in HC, why on earth did he not start him the week before? Is there a quota of how many games an IQ player must start versus NIQ player?

            His comments about signing more NIQ players for Leinster to compete seems to show an utter lack of understanding into the provincial teams place in Irish rugby (from fans and organisation perspective), and how it differs from a club whose only concern is it’s own results. Not to mention, his one overseas signing this season was Tuquiri, easily the worst NIQ player ever signed by any province (Loved the comment by RTE pundit that when he left, he had to hand back his Harry Potter invisibility cloak!). I do not want MOC near our overseas signing budget.

            It is not for the less than great results that I am worried about MOC, but rather that he does not seem to fit in with either the Leinster playing way, or the provincial system. Interesting, all the Kiwi coaches have been a great success across the provinces, and NZ have a similar provincial setup to Ireland. Wonder if it is connected.

            Finally, as the article was about Munster, fair play to them, and I will be cheering for them against Toulon..

          • If we’re talking about worst overseas signings, I’ll see your Lote Tuquiri and raise you Ezra Taylor.

          • ArtVandelay

             /  April 9, 2014

            Joeli Veitayaki

          • Damn. I fold.

          • I’m going all in on Clinton Huppert.

        • Sound Steve

           /  April 9, 2014

          I think it’s too easy to say that this wouldn’t have happened under Schmidt. After all, he didn’t get Leinster out of the group stage last year after losing to Clermont in a not dissimilar fashion at home. For a game like Sunday’s, Sexton, as much for personality as play, is a huge loss and as is SOB. Also, missing 27(?) tackles can’t be laid at his door. These weren’t system errors, these were individual errors for the most part. Also, on the Gopperth situation, it would make sense that his hands are tied. Why would a coach willingly engineer a situation like that?

          I think he’s taken on a pretty thankless task. Without Sexton (or even with him), it has become a pretty functional and uninspiring backline. Leinster may have regressed but I don’t think you can level the blame at MO’C.

          • Good point. Leinster are where Munster were 3 years ago: older players falling like flies and those coming up behind them are either not good enough or had their development stunted by the galacticos ahead of them.

          • Leinsterlion

             /  April 9, 2014

            @salmson If we had a competent coach who was content to die by the sword, go out in a blaze of glory etc, I wouldnt mind, its the meek negativity I cant abide, scraping along all season, for what?

          • I don’t think MOC, short a magic wand to turn back time, could have done much more results-wise given the age profile of Jennings, BOD, Cullen, the scrumhalves, Ross and so on, but that just means you’re spot-on about the negativity. Recently saw someone describe Leinster as Europe’s best side at playing rubbish while getting a bonus point win.

          • curates_egg

             /  April 9, 2014

            Don’t think either Yossarian or I said the result wouldn’t have happened under Schmidt, however I do not think Schmidt would have arrived with that gameplan. We were never going to win the game with up-and-unders and lacklustre kick-chase. It was clear the breakdown was not going to be favourable to us (with Barnes and the power of Toulon), so why play for it? As mentioned, Toulon are a second half team, so we needed to win the first half…not just hang in. It was naive and ill-prepared.

            On the specific missed tackles point, this has been a persistent problem all season and this suggests a defensive system failure (in the Pro12 we have conceded more tries than the other top 5 sides). Our midfield has been filleted by far weaker teams than Toulon. The fact we have managed to win games anyway is definitely to his favour of course.

            Anyway, you can only piss with cock that you’ve got, so we need to try and get the best out of O’Connor and ensure he gets the best out of his players. First stop to this end would seem to be recruiting a defensive coach to sort out our problems there (Bernard Jackman unfortunately is not available yet), so O’Connor can focus on what he supposedly does well: backs.

            Back to Munster though: if Penney does actually pull off the miracle, it will leave the branch looking like utter twats and pile the pressure on poor Axel.

      • curates_egg

         /  April 9, 2014

        If the 6 Nations were tomorrow, I would fully expect Earls (and Bowe) to be in the matchday squad, based on the past 2 months (and their class).

        • Hairy Naomh Mhuire

           /  April 9, 2014

          Sorry to digress from the current topic but as you mention the 6 N’s it is really difficult not to get carried away with how Schmidt is developing a national squad. We can see with the likes of Trimble what being part of Joe’s Irish set-up has done for their game. But what is remarkable is the way he can bring some players further along by keeping them OUT of the squad but maintaining a constant dialogue & making clear the areas they need to work on. What you get is 50 odd players all evolving & progressing towards a clear goal and the benefits spreading to the provinces.

      • Sound Steve

         /  April 9, 2014

        Earls looks stronger since he came back alright. He put Madigan back on his arse pretty convincingly the weekend before as well.

    • Bobby T

       /  April 9, 2014

      Another one eyed Munster Media enthusiast here who is extremely warm to Schmidt with Ireland and I don’t think Sexton is all that rubbish!
      Still think Leinster fans are giving MOC an overly hard time in general. He has done little but win since coming in (and as pointed out above 2 of the best players in Europe have just left and a few more are on the way out). He has a different style but by and large it works. I really think the main factor in Leinsters poor display may have been near-on exhaustion for the majority of the team and specifically the aging members (maybe Joe Schmidts grand plan was to show MOC up by playing his players non-stop).
      2 notably poor performances for me were D’arcy who’s defence was of the u13 flapping arms variety for most of the game (and specifically missing 2 tackles on both Basteraud and Mitchell just prior to Mitchells try) which is very out of character for him and Devin Toner, who had been immense in the 6Ns but imo was awol in Toulon. These guys have just played nearly every minute of a tough 6 nations followed a week later by a relatively tough test v Munster – D’arcy is getting too Danny Glover for this sh*t these days and Toner is not at all used to playing that standard of rugby so often. Drico was also not great and I’d imagine this was a factor. I can’t really explain why the pack were so lethargic as at least half of them should have been rested’ish…..
      Toulon are a great side but the Munster pack if largely fit (minus POM) have a clever game and might just be able to stick it up to them. They are massive though and their back-row is the best around so it will be difficult. Cant let ourselves or them play any rugby as if it becomes a contest of who has the better rugby players they will win hands-down.

      • We’re going to blog on the topic of Leinster and Matt O’Connor tomorrow, so we’ll stay out of the discussion for now. #nospoilers

  3. osheaf01

     /  April 9, 2014

    Plus, Munster did hammer LeinsterLion’s “Best Team in Europe”, so surely any opposition after this is easier in comparison?

    • We’re eagerly awaiting Leinsterlion’s explanation of that one.

    • Leinsterlion

       /  April 9, 2014

      Munster were simply better. Pennyball also came to fruition, Noves has a lot to answer for, Granted Zebo, Lualala, Stander and Earls would walk into the Toulouse team, but I’m pinning this one firmly on Noves.

      • Stevo

         /  April 10, 2014

        So Munster are the best team in Europe?

      • osheaf01

         /  April 10, 2014

        So, Toulouse were completely lacking in the Right Stuff away from home – as they pretty much have been all season?

        I’ve said it to you on the other thread, but I’ll reiterate it here – you grossly overrate talent (Madigan!), and grossly underrate attitude (O’Gara!), as ingredients in winning in team sports. Any side with aspirations to your lofty title of “Best Team in Europe” needs both, in spades. Toulouse’s record this season – not just their non-performance in this match – clearly indicated, for those with eyes to see, that they were nowhere near the level required, attitude-wise and that, yes, Noves bears some of the blame for that – he’s been there too long and has got stale.

        Munster are deficient in the talent stakes but, when they turn up at Marseilles and most probably lose to Toulon, it won’t be because of a limp Italian Army style surrender monkey attitude, like Toulouse, but because they were beaten by an equally tough and resilient side that happened to have more talented players.

  4. Keyser

     /  April 9, 2014

    Can anyone explain what Toulouse’s outhalf was thinking with his “kick” just prior to Laulala’s try?

  5. Scrumdog

     /  April 9, 2014

    What an eye-opener Stander was when he came on and put in 10 tackles in sixty minutes whereas O’Mahony has consistently indicated that he cant surpass 8 in eighty minutes…and Stander cant start for Munster….what gives here?
    Stander is the right player, bringing bulk and high work rate to the pack in Marseille, regardless of O’Mahony’s unfortunate injury, from which I wish a speedy recovery. Go for it Munster!

    • Jimbob

       /  April 9, 2014

      Stander at 6, TOD at 7 and POM at 8 with Copeland on the bench looks the best option for Munster next season if they want to get their best backrow on the pitch. Stander was outstanding on saturday, I really hope he keeps up that standard (no pun intended) over the next few weeks.

      • Looks good Jimbob, looks really good! We’ll just have to wait and see how things pan out. O’Mahony’s out for the season, so Stander’s time to shine has arrived. We’ll find out how good he is. If he keeps up this level, he could force O’Mahony to move to 8, which could work to everyone’s benefit (though O’Mahony convinces as a lineout-catching, breakdown-patrolling 6 these days).

    • Kelly Peters

       /  April 9, 2014

      Not to mention pace. TOD and Stander at 6 and 7 would give the Munster backrow some serious wheels.

    • Leinsterlion

       /  April 9, 2014

      Shockingly a six playing six, has a stormer………

      • Kelly Peters

         /  April 9, 2014

        He’s actually spent most of his career (SA schools, SA U-20, Blue Bulls etc) as a No. 8 so not really an out and out 6.

  6. Junior

     /  April 9, 2014

    Great analysis yesterday from Murray Kinsella regarding Munster’s highly effective maul and ruck play, not much of which was evident in the recent showdown in Lansdowne. Credit must go to Penney and the backroom team, not only for analysing the relative weakness of the Toulouse maul defence, but also for preparing the team to take advantage of it. Even leaving 5 of their 8 heaviest forwards to repel the Munster maul, it was obvious that Toulouse were not committing enough and they paid a heavy price. It seems like a bit of a faux pas on Servats part for not spotting that particular tactic, and it’s one which Toulon will now be wary of. While Stander was immense in the loose, O’Mahony’s work in the lineout will be keenly felt. Toulouse made some hay in throwing to Albecete at the back on at least three occasions, and I imagine Toulon will employ the same to allow them to release Basta or Armitage up the middle.

    As usual, Munster will travel more in hope than expectation. I can’t help thinking that they are a Nick Williams (!), Joe Tekori or Louis Picamoles short of the sheer physicality required to take the game to Toulon, especially with a fit-again Bakkies available for selection.
    Penney-ball is a perfect strategy to stretch the defence of a physically superior side. It is however, predicated on the ability to win one’s own rucks – and then to leave enough bodies out, to move the ball wide again. Based on what I saw on Sunday, Toulon will be very difficult to shift at ruck time, requiring Munster to commit more to the breakdown, and thus negating their own tactic. For me, the Toulon match calls for Radge-ball. Kicking to the corners, contesting lineouts, playing for penalties and utilising the rolling maul wherever possible. Axel will be creaming himself.

    Either way, it will be an intriguing contest. I can’t wait!

    • curates_egg

       /  April 9, 2014

      Botha and Ali Williams to come back for Toulon. Not too shabby and will add a lineout to the rest of the package. Saw Ali Williams in the pub after the match. He is not short.

  7. Speaking as Leinster fan I was thrilled by Munster’s performance against Toulouse and pleased that at least one Irish province made the semis. It will need at least as good a performance in Marseille to stop Toulon. I would love to see the Reds do it. C’mon Munster!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. Leinsterlion

     /  April 9, 2014

    So yeah, MOC swap for Penney, I’d even take Snackbox at this stage? I’ll hold my hands up and say I got this way way wrong. Couldnt fathom how a poor(personnel wise and financially) Munster could beat Toulouse, they didnt just beat them, they spanked them.

    Toulouse whilst lakadaisical in the first were still in this game at HT even though they were thoroughly dominated by Munster, I still thought my money was safe, Toulouse certainly upped their game after the half but, surprisingly, so did Munster. Most complete performance by an Irish side this seaon, I dont buy the line that Toulouse weren’t trying, Tekori certainly was still trying at the death. Toulouse simply lacked class at ten with an unfit Mcallister and Beauxis who is awful, and from that they decended into a shapeless mass. Everywhere else on the park Munster simply dominated them, Medard was distinctly second best to his opposite number, Lualala was class and Stander was easily the pick of both backrows. Munster wont fear going to Toulon, they played the game we should have played, quick ball smart running, instead we stuck with a deep sitting Gopperth and lost, If Munster revert from Penny ball to stereotypical Munster ball, Toulon will kill them.

    Incidentally strange to see no citing for whoever gave Fritz a POC special , especially in light of Paynes two weeks…….

    • Bobby T

       /  April 9, 2014

      Did Munster really play Penneyball? They played clever rugby that I’m sure he orchestrated but it definitely wasn’t the common perception of out and out hands and second rows in the wide channels. It was pretty much as you were for Munster over the past 7-8 years if you ask me. They just did it really well and Toulouse were pathetic. No excuses whatsoever for Zebo or laulalas tries when they were still in it. All tries came from clever forward play and fringe attacking and even a few kicks from an out-half…shocking!

  9. Kelly Peters

     /  April 9, 2014

    Watching Munster this year I can’t help but feeling that losing Penney could be a mistake. Two more years and he would’ve really had a chance to leave an imprint on the club. If you look at the Canterbury side in New Zealand they were never the best collection of individuals in NZ rugby but they were still the dominant force given the strength of their gameplan. Given how the French clubs seem set to dominate and like to fill their backrow with behemoths.I can’t help but thinking that his style of play is perfectly suited to taking on their more physically powerful packs. Moving the point of attack so rapidly wears out this bigger men and allows rangy athletes like POM, TOD and Stander to thrive. It calls for technique and timing over sheer physicality. It even helps mask the weakness in the centres as their is less pressure on them to be creative as the system opens the holes for them to attack rather than having to manufacture them. Now that the players have gotten used to the patterns and become more comfortable with the gameplan they look a totally different side to when he first took over. I hope that Foley has learned from his time with Penney and will keep large portions of his gameplan.

    On a side note it seems the media still seem intent on bashing Penney whenever they get a chance and are very slow to offer praise. He’s clearly rubbed them up the wrong way. Listening to Trevor Hogan on Off the Ball the other night he was intent on lavishing Foley and even Schmidt with the praise for the Munster victory ahead of Penney. Others have been quick, and rightly so, to commend Foley for his work with the pack and the impact Schmidt has had on those who were involved in Irish camps but don’t seem so inclined to give Penney any credit. He took over a foundering team struggling with the loss of so many key individuals and with one foot in Cork and another in Limerick. He helped make the unpopular to make UL their sole base of operations, brought through a host of youngsters who are beginning to make their mark and implemented a whole new style of play.

    • Great point, and key issue for Munster. If they haven’t managed to transfer all of Penney’s know-how, a regression is likely. He’s pretty much got no credit for turning a shapeless rabble back into a European force.

  10. hulkinator

     /  April 9, 2014

    Penney has been great for Munster. Its lunacy to let him leave IMO. They were probably worried about Foley leaving but he has potential while Penney is making things happen now.

    Going back to the team, Munster are on the up and most of the team are young these days. Theres a good academy conveyor belt in opporation now as well so its onwards and upwards from here on (sorry LeinsterLion 😉 ).

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