Leinster edged Munster out at the Palindrome at the weekend. It was a hard-fought, but low-quality affair and rather than both sides looking for the killer blow, in the last 10 minutes it felt as if each was diving to the canvas offering the other the victory. If it were boxing, you’d be asking about suspicious betting patterns.
For all the hype that accompanies these matches, they aren’t always all that great, and you have to go back to 2011 when Ronan O’Gara landed a last-minute touchline penalty to secure a thrilling 24-23 win for the last classic match between the sides. This content of this one will be quickly forgotten, but the result was important.
Munster really, really needed the win to keep in the hunt for the semi-finals and having come up short, they appear condemned to finishing outside the top four and, worryingly, finishing fourth of the Irish provinces and finding themselves scratching around for European rugby next year. For Leinster, and for all the handwringing over their performance level, they find themselves at the top of the Pro12. Top of the world Ma!
Still, don’t let that mask their failings here. Leinster tried to play a bit, but their exiting from their own half was dreadful, relying on a malfunctioning box-kicking game which tended to give the ball back to Munster no more than 15 metres away from where Leinster had it. It was feeble stuff. As for the lineouts; simply awful. And what of Cian Healy, or at least the imposter who has replaced him; a player who shows little familiarity with the game of rugby? Whatever about competing with Jack McGrath, soon he will be under pressure from Michael Bent. Something has gone badly wrong.
Leinster were ultimately saved by the surehanded Jonny Sexton, who gave a streetwise performance and found impressive distance with his line-kicking, and Jamie Heaslip who frequently gave examples of textbook tackling technique. At this stage in his career, it occurs to me that his durability is a result of his technical excellence, allowing him to take collisions on his terms. Rhys Ruddock also put up a good show, and won the match-winning penalty with a trademark breakdown turnover. With Leinster running out of ideas in attack, they were content to live off Munster’s mistakes to eke out the winning scores. And there were plenty of them.
Munster’s leading light was Conor Murray, who, like Sexton, looks like his old self after a post-World Cup slump, and Johnny Holland performed pretty well for a rookie at this level – helped by Murray in a Pienaar/Jackson 2012/13 type of way. He was certainly better than his replacement Ian Keatley, who appears to have had a total crisis of confidence, leaving his game in a shambolic state. Foley, in a rather mealy-mouthed fashion, talked about him being “experienced” and “an international” in the aftermath, both of which are true, but at this point he looks behind a guy with about 144 minutes of Pro12 experience in the pecking order. He needs a fresh start, be it a new DOR (Mick Bradley – honk!) or a new team.
Time was that in the aftermath of these matches, an online bloodbath would take place between the two sets of fans, nitpicking over refereeing decisions (which were appalling in many cases) and what-ifs, but nowadays each group turns inwards to lament the rubbishness of their performance. Leinster fans knew they got out of jail in the final 10 minutes, when they were truly totally lacking in composure, while Munster fans continued to grieve over a wretched season.
They must surely have watched through their fingers as David Kilcoyne butchered a three-man overlap to run into the nearest tackler. If ever one moment encapsulated the failings of a team this was it! It’s next to or near impossible imagining a Connacht player, let alone an Argentinian or an All-Black, making the same appalling decision. Being able to fix the defender and pass to the man outside in a two (or four!) on one situation should be a basic minimum for a professional player, regardless of shirt number. Sad to say it, but the team as a whole does not have anything like the required skill level, and it does not appear that management are interested in fostering a culture where skill is highly valued. It’s all ‘contact’, ‘passion’ and ‘manning up’. Pat Lam speaks an entirely different language.
That’s why they’re sixth in the league, with a huge game to come on the dog track in 10 days – huge for next season and huge to arrest a decline that seems never-ending. On one hand, you have a Connacht team shorn of half backs and think this is an opportunity for Munster, but then, every time you think Munster can’t do any worse they go off and shoot themselves in the foot once again. With Munster these days, they are hoping against hope in spite of the coaching ticket. Connacht seem to be like Wales, where Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny can get crocked and the newbies come in to a well-coached and slick setup with very little impact on performance. It’s increasingly difficult to see how Munster conjure up a winning performance – which would leave them with a high-stakes ERC playoff in Musgrave Park against Embra. Surely that can’t be lost too?