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.