Colm Kinsella looks at the various talking points as Munster’s season reaches a critical stage.
Filing out of Welford Road on Sunday evening to face the biting cold of a December evening in Leicester, it was hard not to feel a sense of bitter frustration at what we had witnessed over the previous two hours.
Make no mistake about it – this was a missed opportunity for Munster. Leicester are a competent, gritty side – with the kind of clinical edge that Munster crave right now – but the Tigers are not genuine Champions Cup contenders.
That Munster failed to pick up even one losing bonus point from their back-to-back meetings with the Tigers, is more of a reflection of the Irish province’s shortcomings over the past two weekends than any brilliance from Richard Cockerill’s side.
Despite the doom and gloom which surrounded the successive defeats to Leicester, all is not completely lost for Munster’s European hopes this season. However, any hopes of Munster pulling off the great escape will depend on Anthony Foley’s charges pulling off a victory away to Stade Francais in early January. Tall order, maybe, but you never know.
So how will Munster look back on their second European Cup defeat at home to Leicester and their first reverse in Europe at the hands of the Tigers at Welford Road?
LACK OF CUTTING EDGE
Munster have managed just four tries in their last four competitive fixtures, including one penalty try awarded in controversial circumstances in the defeat to Connacht.
Of the remaining tries the province has scored over the past month, all three were scored by forwards. Munster’s backline has been threatening on occasion, making several promising line breaks, but the side has been unable to capitalise on them.
A lack of composure and accuracy inside the opposition ‘22 has proved Munster’s undoing time and time again. Munster’s should ask for a greater degree of patience in the red zone this Christmas. Beyond that, former Munster scrum-half and Connacht head coach Michael Bradley is tipped for a move to the province next season to take up a coaching role.
FAILINGS AT 10
IAN Keatley cut a lonely figure as he was replaced in the 67th minute of Sunday evening’s game at Thomond Park by the promising Rory Scannell. Keatley has endured the most difficult couple of weeks of his career this month. It must seem like light years away for Keatley since he started Ireland’s RBS 6 Nations clash away to Italy last February.
Playing at number 10 on the rugby pitch, there is nowhere to hide. As the team’s quarter-back, you get the plaudits when you win and criticised when you lose. Keatley’s confidence must have taken a battering in the wake of the cheers which greeted his substitution in the first meeting with Leicester. After a competent opening half against the Tigers on Sunday evening – first half penalty miss aside – Keatley endured a difficult second half. Despite changing his routine at the end of last season, Keatley’s goal-kicking is unreliable. Not being able to rely on your goal-kicker for a side already struggling to score tries, makes winning games extremely difficult.
The fact Munster’s New Zealand out-half has been sidelined with injury for the vast majority of the season has not helped Keatley. He would surely have benefited from the competition for the number 10 shirt the former Crusader would have provided. Munster coach Foley faces a difficult decision of whether to persist with a clearly below par Keatley through the Christmas and New Year Pro12 clashes with Leinster and Ulster or throw in the talented, although hugely inexperienced, Rory Scannell.
SUNDAY’S defeat in Leicester leaves Munster on a run of four successive defeats, the first time the province has lost that number of games in a row since the of the 2009-2010 season. Nothing saps confidence from a team like losing.
And Munster don’t have the luxury of having the likes of Paul O’Connell in the dressing room to help pull the players through. Adding to their problems is the fact that club captain Peter O’Mahony is sidelined by injury. Munster could also do with getting flanker Tommy O’Donnell back to fitness quickly.
Munster face a difficult run of fixtures over the next five weekends, with the Pro12 interprovincial fixtures against Leinster and Ulster followed by a run of back-to-back Champions Cup ties with Stade Francais before the pool stages of the European Cup concludes with an away game against Treviso.
It’s a demanding schedule and one which is likely to make or break Munster’s season.
WHEN BJ Botha was ruled out of Sunday’s return fixture with Leicester as he continues to follow return-to-play protocols following a recent concussion, many pundits feared for how the Munster scrum and front row would fare.
However, those fears were not realised. Far from it. Indeed, John Ryan turned in a tour de force display against highly regarded Argentine loosehead Marcos Ayerza. On the opposite side of the scrum, James Cronin was also hugely influential, scrummaging and carrying superbly. The return to fitness of hooker Mike Sherry has also been a significant boost for Munster in the key front-row battle ground.
CENTRE OF ATTENTION
FORMER All-Black Francis Saili arrived at Munster with a big reputation this summer. The former Auckland Blue had his share of niggly injuries through the opening months of the season, but now restored to full fitness, he is starting to excel. He thrives in top-of-the-ground, dry conditions which prevailed at Welford Road on Sunday.
The centre turned in a hugely impressive performance on Sunday evening, carrying for a whopping 124 metres and posing a constant threat with ball in hand.
In contrast, Leicester’s leading ball carrier on the night, Telusa Veainu carried for just 78 metres. Saili didn’t just impress in an attacking sense however, Defensively, he was also very solid making seven tackles through the game. Munster will dearly hope that Saili remains fully fit through the demanding Christmas and New Year’s schedule.
THE sense of frustration among supporters in the wake of the home defeat to Leicester Tigers was palpable. There was a feeling of doom and gloom around the Munster team.
Munster’s improved display against the Tigers should restore the faith of at least some of those previously disenchanted supporters. Munster need their fans more than ever now.