Munster are in deep, deep trouble
The festive period is over and Leinster are as unbeatable now as they were back on December 20. Munster lost twice in six days and cracks are beginning to show.
By bringing in Graham Rowntree and Stephen Larkham into his coaching panel, Munster head coach Johann Van Graan would have been hoping his team would be able to quickly soak up what the new guys were putting down.
Larkham arrived first and Rowntree followed after the World Cup and, in truth, it will take time for ideas, philosophies and practices to take root. Both men, on the same page as Van Graan, want the Munster forward to up their ball-playing skills and they want all 15 men on the pitch to keep the ball alive more than previous incarnations.
It is tough to try and bring about fundamental changes on the fly and with 11 men returning home from a frustrating, gut-wrenching World Cup campaign in Japan. The remainder of the squad coped well in the opening weeks of the Guinness PRO14 and they bossed a hapless Ospreys side in the opening round of the Champions Cup pool stages.
The first reality check was delivered by Racing 92, in November at Thomond Park. The Parisians were far better than Munster and looked home and hosed after 60 minutes before Finn Russell missed a handy penalty and the home bench made an impact. Andrew Conway's converted try secured an unlikely draw and JJ Hanrahan could have committed plain larceny had his late drop goal effort sailed over. Post-match, Van Graan said:
"These players don’t know how to give up. We are a club that doesn’t know how to give up, even though the odds are against you, you just keep fighting."
In between that game and a Champions Cup win over an under-strength Saracens, Munster lost 18-16 to Edinburgh in a PRO14 fixture down in Cork. Allowing Saracens to get out of Limerick with a losing bonus point was compounded when they turned down a penalty at Allianz Park and cost themselves a losing bonus point in the return fixture.
That leaves Munster needing to go to France, next weekend, and beat Racing on their home turf to stay alive in Europe. Most of the signs are clearly pointing at that going awry but we are still waiting for the big Munster performance that can spark their season.
Munster are without a trophy since their Celtic League success in 2010/11 and there is a train of thought that focusing on the Guinness PRO14 could be the best way to galvanise this side under the new JVG coaching ticket. They have been fortunate to avoid Leinster in the PRO14 conferences split and a decent run of wins could yet see them top Conference B.
Up in Conference A, Ulster have 36 points after 10 games but are destined to finish second in their table no matter who strongly they finish their season. Leinster are swatting all comers and are on a mammoth 47 points.
Munster's 38-17 thumping by Ulster, on Friday, was their fourth league loss of the season yet they are only a point behind Conference B Scarlets, who are on 31. If Munster's first-choice XV are just about treading water, their second string players are struggling. Against Leinster, in their 13-6, they looked bereft of ideas and Leinster won by staying patient and forcing errors.
The major worry for Munster, and their supporters, is how they are ceding ground to big ball-carriers (in the Racing, Saracens, Leinster and Ulster games) while struggling to get front-foot ball when they are on the attack. As Ireland found out in 2019, lose the collisions and winning matches gets next to impossible.
On the latest episode of Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby, former Munster centre Barry Murphy lamented his old side clinging onto a box-kicking tactic that is diminishing in terms of returns. Murphy commented:
"If you went back and looked at the last five or six games - especially for Munster with the Racing game, two Sarries games, even the Ospreys game - our return from box-kicks is, I'd go so far as saying almost 0. It's above 90% (failure rate). We're not getting the ball back, we're kicking not on our terms, the ball is slowed down beyond belief.
"You could hear the Leinster players the other night counting '8, 9, 10 seconds' while the ball is being rolled back through; trying to create a longer ruck. And then it's a kick when everyone's ready for it. And there was a time when Joe Schmidt brought that into Ireland - when you were chasing - when it was a unbelievable tactic and no-one knew how to deal with it, and it was brilliant, but that time has come and gone."
Next Sunday afternoon, Munster find themselves deep in make-or-break territory.
Can the likes of O'Mahony, Earls, Stander and Murray turn it on when it truly counts? It is certainly possible but a Munster win in Paris would be one of the shocks of the season.
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Barry Murphy and Andrew Trimble look back on all the festive inter-pro action and discuss Ireland's first squad gathering under Andy Farrell.