The Passion of St Tibulus

This summer, when Axel Foley started his reign as Munster coach, there was a lot of talk about (brace yourself) a “return to traditional Munster values”. To be fair none of it came from Axel himself, but a meeja who had never really bought into the Rob Penney thing defaulted to assuming it would happen.  Those traditional Munster values, as we understand them, are something like an emphasis on the set piece, attacking by forwards around the fringes, and a gameplan strong on half backs kicking for territory.  But if pulled pork was among the most annoying phrases of 2014, ‘a return to traditional Munster values’ should be at least in the top five.  It’s become a sort of off the shelf commodity.  Get your return to traditional Munster values for just €29.99 at Argos.  Simply plug into the wall, and you automatically have a winning rugby team.

In recent weeks, Foley’s gameplan has been pretty effective, with wins in Sale (including an extra bonus traditional value of a late drop goal) and the Palindrome by a relative cricket score, and a satisfying slap-down of Globo Gym in Thomond. They have played a fairly narrow game, with CJ Stander carrying and big centres used to try and bash holes.  Foley’s one creative midfield outlet, JJ Hanrahan, has gone largely unused, when he’s a full deck to choose from at least.

There is, however, one traditional value not mentioned above, and it was best articulated by Axel himself – “we’re better when we are bitter”. Too right – a large portion of the Munster mytholgy is built on proving someone wrong – playing a big English or French team, taking a “they don’t rate us” mentality on to the field – and showing them who is boss. There are many classics of the genre, but our favourite was in Leicester in 2006 when Rog announced the week before the game that he could not accept the English players were any better than Irish ones (at a time when this was a controversial line), won with a last minute penalty into the rain from the halfway line. The perfect riposte – the arrogant English Tigers didn’t rate Munster, and they were shown up in their own house.  Munster still love the underdog tag.

In the build-up to this game last week, the talk was about how the Munster tight five would be dominant and Clermont would naturaly wilt in the cauldron that was Thomond on a Saturday night. No-one was under-rating Munster, and Clermont were painted as a powehouse, but ultimately a mentally frail team who always give you a chance no matter how good they are.  Everyone felt Munster would win.

If there was one team playing like they had a point to prove, one team that felt disregarded, it was Clermont. And they played like a Deccie-era Munster team facing the arrogant English. Munster looked a bit shell-shocked by the intensity Clermont were bringing, by the magnitude of the hits, by the un-Brock James like fortitude of Camille Lopez and by the refusal to bow down before the waves of passion from the stands. Lopez missed three early kicks but all were difficult and noe were especially badly struck.  Any supsicion that he had been Thomond-ed fell apart once he nailed a drop goal from the 10m line.

Clermont had the Munster scrum in trouble – how BJ Botha lasted 80 minutes is beyond us. The lineout malfunctioned – Duncan Casey’s hot arm is cooling at just the wrong time – and one-out rumbles were stopped on, or behind, the gainline every time. Of the forwards, only Tommy O’Donnell carried effectively (and he was superb, carrying for 44m, compared to 47m for the rest of the pack) and the general, Conor Murray, was under pressure and mis-firing, for once. Has Paul O’Connell ever been shunted backwards so often in a match?  CJ Stander had been Munster’s best forward in the early season, but he had a poor match; had Robin Copeland been available he might have been called ashore.

The most disappointing thing was the absence of a Plan B – in the last 10, Munster went through 20 phases in the Clermont half when Clermont took them behind the gainline every time they attacked the fringes of the ruck.  If you were one of those punters looking for a return to traditional Munster values – you had your wish granted.  Suggestions that Hanrahan would have made a difference in this match are miles off; he wouldn’t have seen the ball.

It felt like Munster simply did not rate Clermont and couldn’t get their heads around the fact that they were still unable to bash through the middle; that Clermont would eventually ‘give them a chance’ if they kept doing the same thing. The expected choke never happened, but this isn’t the time of year for it anyway – since the last time they played Munster in the pool stages, Clermont have qualified for five quarter finals in succession, topping the pool four times. In recent years, they have cruised through the pool stages and a succession of tough draws, including Leinster twice, Ulster, Leicester twice and the Ospreys – the tailspins are saved for the spring.  In fact Clermont deserve a huge amount of praise for the manner in which they won it.  Very few teams contest opposition lineouts in their own 22 these days, the vast majority prefering to set the maul defence, but Clermont were brave enough to put a man in the air and only went and stole the ball.  Chouly said they knew O’Connell would call it on himself.

Simply put – Munster weren’t braced for this kind of contest, and have likely paid with their participation in the tournament. Peter O’Mahony said straight after the game that Munster owed their fans a big performance in the return leg – problem is, the Marcel Michelin isn’t a very hospitable place for a last stand – however well Munster come out, they are unlikely to get the win they need. Going to Saracens and winning offers a better chance, but still less than probable.  Saracens are still in the competition and will need the result just as badly as Munster.  Munster needed the bitter attitude going in on Saturday, but somehow misplaced their indignation.

Now some caution needs to be thrown to the wind.  Foley talked about using both Keatley and Hanrahan together in the team earlier this season, but he has stuck with Hurley as a hole-punching inside centre.  Hanrahan’s scarcity of gametime in the important matches has been one of the season’s curiosities, because it’s not as if he hasn’t played well when he’s been on.  Foley needs to embrace the possibilites he offers, because they will not beat Clermont by trucking it up for another 80 minutes. But at least they’ll be underdogs and largely written off this time.  That always helps.

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56 Comments

  1. Riocard O Tiarnaigh

     /  December 8, 2014

    Munster’s greatest failing on the day, IMO, was their inability to play the ref. Having their captain doing Hulk imitations and throwing haymakers within minutes of the kick-off is not the way to get on Wayne Barnes’ good side. PO’M’s tendency to get involved in handbags has long been his Achilles Heel. I reckon Jonno Gibbes sent his lads out to get the Munster captain flustered and it worked.

    • D6W

       /  December 8, 2014

      Interesting. It also seemed as if PO’C forgot he wasn’t captain and was getting involved in verbals wih he ref. I wonder if PO’M felt he couldn’t take the senior legend aside and say something like “shut up, let me do the talking”.

      Although now another miracle match is set up in Clermont, looking forward to it.

      • Agreed, fellas. We tweeted around the 30 minute mark that Munster seemed to be getting quite ratty with Barnes. Never the best way to deal with him.

    • Nonsense. Wayne Barnes had nothing to do with the winning or losing of the match, despite what some Munster fans would’ve had you believe on Saturday night. There were a myriad of failings plus a really motivated Clermont performance. The referee is a total red herring.

      “PO’M’s tendency to get involved in handbags”. According to a journalist at the game it was Fritz Lee who instigated the punching but it wasn’t shown on camera.

      • Yes. Barnes wasn’t a factor as such, but Munster getting in his face showed that they were really rattled.

      • D6W

         /  December 8, 2014

        Agree that Wayne Barnes did not decide the outcome of the match. But there is a real danger that getting on refs nerves can lead a ref to give more margnal calls against you. So something that teams should avoid.

        I thought Munster never really recovered from conceding what seemed like a soft try at the start. As if they had not mentaly prepared themselves for the possibility of playing catchup rugby.

        • Riocard O Tiarnaigh

           /  December 8, 2014

          Ronan, the fact of Fritz Lee being the instigator proves my point. Clermont got to PO’M and put him off his game. Lack of composure? That’s exactly what the captain is supposed to prevent, regardless of how well or not the communications with the ref go.

          • Not sure how O’Mahony was off his game-was he really any better or worse than the rest of the pack (which was poor)? He got punched twice, threw one back and nothing came of it. I don’t remember any more incidents in the game.

            Communication with Barnes was immaterial. Munster lost because they couldn’t get over the gainline and had no backplay to speak of.

      • mxyzptlk

         /  December 8, 2014

        I think the point is that Munster became over-focused on if they could move Barnes, rather than how to move Clermont. It wasn’t Barnes’ fault, it was Munster’s fault for being too focused on the wrong part of the game.

    • Jesper

       /  December 8, 2014

      Riocard – I was at the match and POM was a long way from doing Hulk impersonations. Lee landed 4 punches that I counted while POM’s jersey was pulled over his head. How this was missed by the TJs is a mystery (it happened about 30/40 metres behind the play so Barnes can be excused for not seeing anything). The crowd got quite animated so how a TJ didn’t think to look around to see what they were missing is beyond me. Maybe they didn’t want to know? It was as clear-cut a red card as you’ll see on a rugby pitch. What kind of a match do we have then?

  2. The lack of composure when in the Clermont 22 definitely did not help. Clermont had our number, but with better composure, we could have sneaked the win. Two knocks on in the attempts at rolling mauls, and an overthrow along with a ball being stolen, was very unusual.
    Also, Conor Murray not having his best game, even though he was under pressure, he still did not play to his usual standards, meant we were done for..
    There were sooo many little errors all night, that contributed against us gaining momentum when we needed it most, e.g. Zebo not letting the ball go out of touch, VdH kicking the ball dead, etc.
    Also, Stander was completely missing in this game..

    • Yes, lots of errors. Two poor maul transfers is very unlike Munster, in this or any era. But really the losing of the game was in the contact zone. Munster struggled for go-forward, they kept getting smashed on the gainline.

      • Scrumdog

         /  December 9, 2014

        It appeared that anyone on the Munster team carrying the ball did so with one hand and telegraphed he was going into contact…..no deception whatsoever…asking no questions of the defenders and leaving the ball vulnerable for theft in a double team tackle.

    • After the Leinster game, lots of people were consoling themselves that they were only a try away from winning it at the death. To be fair despite playing terribly, showing a complete lack of composure in the 22, calls not going their way (not blaming Barnes for the losing of it, Clermonts good play and Munster bad play more important), Stander anonymous and more than one brainfart they were still only 7 points adrift. Thats some of the worst rugby they’ve played this year and ASM could only win by 7.

      Stade Michelin has been sacked 2 or 3 times this year, hasn’t it? I’m be less than depressed after a weekend of relfection.

      • That’s one way of looking at it, but when has any team come away from Thomond Park with a win by more than seven? Any away win against one of the big teams in Europe will always be by a tight margin.

        You’re right about the SMM though, not as impregnable as it was. But Munster wil need to broaden their approach to have a chance there.

        • Had any team come away from Michelin with a win in all competitions till this season?

          But yeah maybe Clermonts close controlled limited game plan was the way to play at Thomond. I haven’t seen them play at all this season so can’t tell if that’s there modus operandi or a one-off Cup special. I suspect they probably have a few strings to their bow that weren’t even considered for this match.

      • cp

         /  December 8, 2014

        The Michelin has been sacked once this season. And once last season. That’s twice in, what, the last 5 seasons? Your optimism seems to be based on the fact that Clermont didn’t hammer Munster (on the scoreboard at least).

        The reality is the brainfarts came from the pressure exerted. That pressure will be even higher next weekend, and Munster will not have the 65% possession and territory they had this week.

        I’d be really worried if anyone in the Munster coaching setup were of the opinion that all that’s needed is to execute the same plan better next weekend. The very best Munster teams had a midfield and a plan B. Munster have to show some ability to vary the attack.

  3. I actually thought Botha had a good game at the scrum, after his warning Munster won more penalties than they conceded. And some of the penalties he conceded early on could’ve gone the way for Domingo being perpendicular to the touchline.

    And Cronin seemed to have a reasonable good game in the loose for a guy who came on 50mins sooner than expected. He made more than one break through a set defensive line.

    Other than that so terribly one-dimensional, Penney ball may not have been the fit for Munster but a modified version where you move the French pack around the pitch all day is the only way Munster were ever going to beat them ‘up front’. Foley and O’Connell give away a collective 3 stone to Vahaamahina and Chouly.

    • Leinsterlion

       /  December 8, 2014

      agree on botha, thought he recovered well and put in a shift, his scrummaging wasn’t a reason for Munsters loss.

    • curates_egg

       /  December 9, 2014

      I was really disappointed with Cronin. Seems to have gone back since last season.

      • Lop12

         /  December 9, 2014

        was Cronin first rugby in quite some time through injury; think he hadnt played since mid-late oct. So wouldnt read too much into his efforts on Saturday when he was introduced well ahead of planned id say.

        rumours that both him and Kilcoyne are out this weekend as well, the cupboard is very very bare if so.

        • curates_egg

           /  December 9, 2014

          Thought he had been out a bit alright. Don’t get what the OP saw that was so good though. Hope he gets back to where he was anyway.

        • Scrumdog

           /  December 9, 2014

          Munster looked like they’re in serious decline. A below par midfield, but Hurley and Howard in particular, did make some excellent tackles. The pack who without Paul O’Connell wouldn’t be rated in this year’s European contest on this latest performance appear to be living on past accomplishments, not good for Irish rugby. Maybe Hanrahan at 10 and Keatley at 12 this weekend?

          I think there has to be changes to the starting line up in the back five to bring something to Clermont. While O’Donnell played well I think the starting back row might be Stander (6), Copeland(8) and O’Mahony (7) with O’Donnell on the bench. O’Callaghan starting in the second row packing on the tighthead will help the scrum but he needs to stay disciplined, and Foley coming off the bench.The pack is lacking some bulk and look ‘lightweight’ Copeland and O’Callaghan add some much needed ‘beef’ and aggression, and Munster will have ‘young legs’ to come on in the third quarter and up the pace in the pack. The Clermont back row needs to be ‘sorted’ out.

          • So the dropping of O’Donnell (their best forward against Clermont) and the return of O’Callaghan (who was cresting the hill 4 years ago) is the answer for Munster? Holy smokes – what was the question?!

          • If the rumours are true that JJ Hanrahan has been approached by Saints and is interested in moving. It will be a pretty damming indictment of Munster’s failure to utilise a player of his abilities. How long more do we have to watch Hurley in the centre. He is a good honest player but not what is needed at HC level. The display against Clermont lacked guile, purpose or bite. We never looked remotely like breaking the gainline to the extent that we might actually worry Clermont.
            The insistence on banging it up the middle when we were never likely to succeed was simply depressing. I’ll forgive Murray his performance it simply reflected a team bereft of ideas. Moving Keatley to 12 and JJ at 10 might be worth the risk. Because we know one thing, for sure, if we start with the same team and approach Clermont will have the match won before half time.

          • O’Donnell on the bench! Have to disagree there.

  4. It was painful to watch the last 10 mins, Munster were mashed in the tackle time and time again. Any rare break beyond the gainline was back where it started(or worse) 2/3 phases later. CA were quick in line speed and liberal on the off-side too.
    Was there an element of luck with Fofana try, did it deflect to him in the tackle??

    Leinster were awful to watch, Kearney was doing his Johnny May/JD II impression. A real lack of creativity, Joe, Sexton, BOD and Isa are big losses for them

    • I think it was a lucky deflection but you play the breaks. And even allowing for luck there POM should have done way better in the covering tackle. Hardly even an attempt of a fend from Fofana.

      • Leinsterlion

         /  December 8, 2014

        I wasn’t going to be the one to mention it, lest I be accused of bias. You can’t be talked up as a game changing back row and miss tackles like that. The Clermont backrow overwhelmed their opposite numbers.

        • osheaf01

           /  December 9, 2014

          I wasn’t going to be the one to mention it, lest I be accused of bias, but how could you talk up Toulouse as the Best Team in Europe, last season…they’re not even the best team in France.

          • Topsy Turvy

             /  December 9, 2014

            why bring up old discussions/arguments? It’s a little bit petty no?

    • Yeah, we’ll hold off on the spoilers but we’ll be talking Leinster next, nd it won’t be pretty.

      • Ciaran

         /  December 8, 2014

        Leinster were more Father Stone than St Tibulus.

    • To be honest the loss of BOD etc is of less concern than the onboarding on MOC. A friend of mine who is an avid Tigers fan couldn’t believe that Leinster went for him. He has brought the Tigers game circa 2005 with him. It is no coincidence that the skill levels have dropped so far and so quickly.

  5. connachtexile

     /  December 8, 2014

    Probably going to get reamed for this but anyway. I’ve really not enjoyed watching the Ulster, Leinster or Munster play this season. All three seem to have regressed within themselves and are now playing a type of rugby which is conservative in the extreme. It’s like all three managers are scared of letting the players express themselves on the pitch and are coaching the life out of the players. I know style isn’t the be all and end all of the game but have to imagine that the morale of a lot of players and supporters aren’t exactly high watching/playing essentially bosh rugby week in week out. Ulster and Munster at least have an excuse with them bedding in new management teams. As for Leinster…

    • D6W

       /  December 8, 2014

      Couldn’t agree with you more! And you are correct that Leinster the only ones with no excuse. For the good of the game in Ireland, it is now essential that the best and most expansive coach in Ireland be brought in to Leinster to complement Joe’s work with essentially the Irish back line. Pat Lam, pack your bags 🙂

      • “essentially the Irish back line” at Leinster? I was under the impression that that particular institution is currenty more likely to be found residing on the banks of the Lagan.

      • connachtexile

         /  December 8, 2014

        Pat’s quite happy where he is and is getting/got a new 3 year contract. So you’ll have to look elsewhere. Jonno Gibbes seems to be the fan fav to replace MOC

      • curates_egg

         /  December 9, 2014

        Leinster currently only supplies one starting back to the Irish team: Kearney. The pack is another matter.

        • D6W

           /  December 9, 2014

          D’Arcy also started Australia match.

          • curates_egg

             /  December 9, 2014

            Due to injuries. I’ve been a massive D’Arce fan all along but, at the moment, he seems to be a way off first choice for Ireland. Let’s see how he turns his season around at Leinster.

            Bigger picture though: it is no longer true to claim Leinster supplies the Irish backline.

          • D6W

             /  December 9, 2014

            @curates_egg I was being facetious, hence smiley.

            But in the interest of complete pedantry, it could be said that, injury permitting, Leinster are the only team that could put out a full house of Irish international starters backs IE who have started in their designated positions. Reddan, Madigan, D’Arcy, Fitz, McFadden, D Kearney, R, Kearney. Ulster come close, allowing Payne at FB, but think are missing a scrumhalf.

    • @CompleteBore

       /  December 8, 2014

      The only one I see regularly is Ulster and I wouldn’t say they’ve gone conservative, in fact they seem to want to move the ball quite a bit, even if it looks a little unplanned and they’re just hoping the talent in the backline will make something happen. Unfortunately, they are failing at the breakdown to get any fast ball and are losing it pretty regularly. Throw in a terrible line-out and some pretty weak defending at times and it doesn’t look like they’re going back to basics, but rather that they need to.

    • curates_egg

       /  December 9, 2014

      Would’ve thought the injury list at Leinster is a valid excuse when it comes to the H-Cup. The team that started Sunday had never started before.

      Personally, I think it is an excuse that has been overplayed and is not valid to explain the serious fall off in basic facets of play over the past 12 months…but it is a valid excuse for the Heineken Cup. And, in that competition, our destiny is still in our own hands…unlike some others.

  6. I wonder if the provincials coaches have seen the low risk gameplan adopted by Joe and decided they should be following suit…?

    I don’t know about Foley, but in MOC’s case, he probably doesn’t need much persuading. I think Doak is more inclined towards an attacking gameplan but he needs to establish himself.

    Ulster have been pretty brutal to watch for a lot of this season but there is some evidence for creativity amongst the backs, usually revolving around Tommy Bowe.

    • Lop12

       /  December 8, 2014

      I think you have hit the nail on the head. Munster looked to be trying to implement the kick contest approach on Saturday, not the worst plan in reality, but the quality of kicking, and chasing was absolutely woeful. Did Murray kick 3/4 out on the full?

      Zebo also had a particularly poor game IMO; made one v poor decision and deflected the ball into touch and his pirouette routine every time he looked like he was going to be tackled was pretty annoying, steady yourself for the hit and position yourself best for the support to arrive.

      All credit to Clermont. they had done their homework and played the opposition and the conditions exactly how they should have.

      Beggars belief that JJ didnt get a run at some point, and that Johne Murphy was on the bench when Conway played with the A team the night before (having been close to our best back in the two games to date).

      • I don’t know why Conway wasn’t picked, in fact I’d presumed he had to be injured!

        Not usre Hanrahan would have made a difference in this match, as the plan was not to let the backs have the ball at all at all, but taking the broader view, they need to get him involved more. He offers something they don’t have in the team.

        • A so you’re finally coming to terms with the ’cause celebre’ that is JJ Hanrahan.

          I also don’t agree with your assumption that he would not have seen the ball had he been playing, Munster had 65% possession.

          I thought Munster’s biggest problem was the way they utilised their ball carriers, they just ran straight in CA and they picked them off. Also there was no urgency from the Murray or Keatley to get a bitta tempo going.

    • mxyzptlk

       /  December 8, 2014

      I see where you’re coming from, but not sure if that’s the case or if it just looks like that on the surface. Like @CompleteBore said, Ulster have been trying to open up play. Munster seem to be trying to re-organize how they play, rather than play to Schmidt’s current game plan. And if MOC is trying to play like Ireland, it’s not working, since there are almost no strikes coming, even from defense. Gopperth attacked the line more against Quins, especially in the first half, but each time he went up, he always took the tackle and didn’t release the ball, making him fairly readable.

      The provinces seem like the places where you’d want to develop an attacking mindset that you can then cultivate at the national level, even if you can’t implement it to the same degree. I’d think at the national level you’d rather have backs who are at least somewhat accustomed to creative attack on a regular basis; that way they’ll be more used to spotting opportunities and jumping on them, instead of constantly falling back into a structure.

  7. Whilst Barnes is not an international standard ref, take a look at his handling of the last RSA v NZ for proof. He was not in any way the determining factor in this match. Munster were outdone on the night by a team who came to Thomond determined not to be cowed. Munster, on the otherhand performed way below standard the pack in particular and the half backs had a nightmare. The JJ question appears to have been answered, Axel prefers an unimaginative bash it up the middle platform. Unfortunately that is returning precisely squat, when faced with a team capable of not just countering that but being able to engage their own back line.
    Zebo defensively was poor, but in fairness to him he never got any kind of decent ball.
    So what’s the plan for next week, who knows.
    JJ should start to at least give some options in the middle. BJ is another question, he had a torrid time, though I’d allow him some leeway due to Barnes’s rather quixotic interpretation of front row engagement. His lineout interpretation was as always a case of reffing just one side. That PO’M was clearly targeted because they felt they could rile him should have been dealt during the week. Gibbes knows enough about It is rugby and the Munster brains trust should have seen it coming. As Captain he needs to cool his engines and not get provoked. That the TJ missed him being punched only further confirms my view that TJs in generally are proving as useful as chocolate teapots.
    The concerning thing about next week is that there is no discernible Plan B. A repeat of last week and we could be on the wrong side of a complete shellacking.

  8. Andrew097

     /  December 8, 2014

    Defenders defend options the more things you give defenders to think about the more likely they will choose the wrong thing to defend or be flat footed. The less they have to think the easier it is to defend. Clermont only had to catch kicks and tackle the first man around the side because that is the only thing Munster did and the only thing Clermont players were asked to think about.
    Minsters big players did not come up with the goodies the ones you wanted to come up with a big play didn’t.
    Munster have the best twelve in the country, passes very well, wicked break, big enough in the tackle, good optional boot and some gas in the open field too. His nam is Ian Keatly it’s so bleeding obvious. They also probably have the best full back as well in Simon Zebo. Good in the air, bit of gas, good long boot, tackles one on one better then Kearney and also has a habit of being able to arrive at the right time.
    But back play in Monster is a lost cause they managed to turn Cullen and Howlett average.

  9. Clermont looked well prepped and their forwards coach would get a lot of the credit for that from me. They were able to read the Munster attack too easily and a failure to look at pop passes etc generally meant the ball carrier was gang tackled, hence the gain line malfunction. Stander is a good carrier, but against 3 clermont players? Who outside of bath could do it? 🙂

    Even at that though Munster were not that far away and a wee bit less panic on the maul set ups might have changed things. I did think Barnes refereed the gap of the lineout inconsistently and you could even argue poorly, but thems the breaks and you gotta get on with it. They aren’t that far from being a decent side, but this game showed them to not be there quite yet in all areas and with qualifying now an uphill battle, the improvements might come too late for this competition. Might this result have opened the door a little to ulster again too?

  10. Declan

     /  December 9, 2014

    Article littered with typos, please!

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