Brendan Fanning: Munster have no more room for error
Munster still haven't acquired the skills for the type of game Rob Penney wants to play
Not long after the final whistle in Musgrave Park last weekend, and before coach Rob Penney put his head down for a sleepless night, the management of the Munster squad steeled themselves for what lay ahead. Not even as far forward as this afternoon's Heineken Cup tie in Murrayfield, rather the course to be navigated en route.
When you slump to your worst performance of the season, eight days before producing something you hope will be your best, then nothing is straightforward. "A difficult week," was the description most used by people in the Red Zone.
In the middle of that awkward period was the midweek feed for the media. This would require more than the usual choreography. To get the show up and running on a positive note, Paul O'Connell was sent out front in Limerick's Castletroy Park Hotel. Even if he has bad news to impart, O'Connell's stature is such that he can mitigate it with his delivery.
As it turned out, he didn't have anything much to add to what was already in the public domain – well, apart from revealing he has used magnets on his back in a desperate attempt to obviate going under the knife – but for the week that was in it, you understand, it was good business to have him in public.
Next came Donncha O'Callaghan. When it comes to pulling something from the hurt locker, no one does it better than the second row. He always produces something that's credible and quotable, though interestingly he even started to borrow from the Rob Penney vocabulary, where instead of wins and losses you have "positive and negative outcomes".
The coach himself was next up. Most important for Penney was that he came across as flexible. If it's not working we're prepared not just to look under the bonnet, but to search far and wide for whatever spare part is necessary to get it up and running again. By the time these messages had been imparted, maybe there wasn't much appetite left among the daily media for the nuts and bolts of what had looked so awful in Musgrave Park.
It had been noticeable on the night how quickly Rob Penney had pointed to the stratospheric error count on the Munster team – ie, it doesn't matter what system you're playing, if you keep dropping the ball it won't work. It wasn't in the Brian Ashton class of 1998, when infamously he described the last 15 minutes of an Ireland defeat by Scotland as featuring a game plan other than his own, but it was a pre-emptive strike nonetheless.
So, when at the midweek briefing the Sunday hacks were then handed Damien Varley, in a separate setting, it seemed natural to ask about the game plan and if everyone was on the same page. Now Varley may not be Phil 'The Power' Taylor with his darts, but in this game he is the safest pair of hands around. Intelligent and articulate, he gives enough of himself in the interview process to make a modest meal, without offering any extra helpings on the internal stuff. So Damien, aside from Munster's mistake-meter blowing a fuse when it got to 29, have there been no issues post-match with the structure itself?
"No, I don't think so," he says. "I think the soul-searching that we did was based on the standards that we set for ourselves, from a skill point of view, from a knowledge point of view of the game and I think that is where we let ourselves down. The way we've tried to play the game – we've been successful in a lot of the games we've played so far.
"So just because there were a lot of mistakes made we can't just point our fingers at the system and say it's system error and we need to go and play a different way. I think the way we're playing, if it's executed, and the way we've often executed it in training, we'll be fine."
It's like they have two games in Munster at the minute – there's the version they ran with for the back-to-back games with Saracens, and the one they bring with them for some of the Pro12 games.
It was the second one we saw first this season, the touchline-to-touchline game that had everybody talking from week one. Like anything else in this world of in-depth analysis, all their opponents have seen how it works. And prepared accordingly.
Maybe Munster thought that Cardiff were in such a state that they could run with the wide-wide stuff and get away with it. Certainly the Blues have suffered along with the other Welsh regions, between exiting players and dwindling budgets, and the crew they brought to Cork last weekend had 26-year-old Jamie Roberts as their oldest player. Eleven of them were under 23. Even so, they have worked very hard on their tackling technique under Phil Davies, and No 8-turned-defence coach Xavier Rush, and they had a very clear idea of how they would approach Munster. When the home team started using decoys that gave tailors' dummies a bad name, shoveling the ball across the field, Cardiff arranged to meet them on the far side of the field and on the Munster side of the gain line.
Incredibly, Munster turned over the ball eight times by stepping, or allowing themselves to be tackled, over the touchline. In a game where tries are scored by going north or south, Munster's blind obsession with east/west was excruciating to watch. Varley is adamant however that there are no fundamentals to be fixed. The extent of his concession is that it's taking a while to nail down, that being a hooker on the touchline in open play can be a painful experience.
"The Ulster game is probably the one that stands out," he says. "I was on the right wing and Denis Hurley had the ball and I was shouting to him to pass it and the next thing he took off. And he was gone 20 yards before I could even take off. So I think there are certain moments like that when you're going, 'fuck this!' You're trying to keep up with a back, but again I think that's something you have to get used to.
"You have to get used to being a forward in a position out wide, that you don't have to hold the same depth that they hold, take a flatter line and catch up to them. There are one or two hairy moments, but overall I think it's a very good system and once we take our attitude and physicality and mesh them all together, we'll have a very good game."
Those who know Rob Penney well say he is a "brutally stubborn" individual, so he's not for turning on this. He is right of course that something needed to change, for Munster were already in trouble when he landed in Cork last summer. But despite what you are told privately in the camp, that it's not as if they have two models – rather they have the same one that works some days and looks different on others when it fails to start – it looks that way. Of course it helps that it's Edinburgh they're facing while trying to figure all of this out. Michael Bradley is being lined up for the exit at the end of the season where investment has brought only further failure. They are the only one of 24 teams in the Heineken Cup yet to score a try in this campaign – a staggering statistic – and they have won just four from 13 games in the Pro12.
"Let's see what happens on Sunday," Bradley says of this afternoon. "If we beat Munster that will give a completely different shape to our season and people will be asking 'what happened in season 2012-13?' And we'll say: 'Well, we put Munster out of the Heineken Cup'. It might be a reverse of last year but it's still a statement and an opportunity for us. If we then go down and do the same to Sarries and really annoy everybody, then that's great. There's no point in putting the nail in the coffin quite yet."
So what's different now to last season's campaign that brought them to the semi-final?
"To me, it's relatively straightforward. Munster and Sarries are better sides than London Irish and Cardiff. That's the reality of it. We beat Racing last year twice and this year they beat us twice, but in the match here [this season] when it was 6-3 [to Racing] we then missed five kicks at goal. So it could have been 18-6 before they got their next score. They got three kicks then from 45 metres to win 15-6 and so that was one of those days, where they had a good day and we didn't."
He has a point about the fine margins that sometimes can distort a game. In the Thomond Park game with Munster, for example, Edinburgh were trailing 16-0 deep into the final quarter, having trailed 6-0 at half-time. They had been competitive if unsuccessful. Then they collapsed and lost 33-0. Genuinely, it wasn't as if they were beaten out the gate from the off.
That result went some way to raising expectations among Munster supporters that Penney's plant might already be shooting up. It isn't. And it won't until they have the skills to develop the type of game he wants to play – from basic passing to cleaning out with minimum numbers. And that's before you inject the sort of searing pace you need out wide to make the game work, pace which Munster don't have in Doug Howlett and Denis Hurley. Varley doesn't detect any great patience among the Munster fans, despite the loss over the last 18 months of 1,000 caps worth of experience. Rather they watched Ulster qualify on Friday night with a game to spare, and want that luxury again for themselves.
"I wouldn't like to think that anyone would have lower expectations, because I think a standard has been set over the last 14 years," he says. "Certainly the guys – whether you have one cap or 100 caps, the standard is set at training and everyone should take that attitude into games. The phrase that the team is in transition is often used – and I don't really agree with it. Guys have been exposed to the system whether they've been capped or not, over a number of years. They know the standard, they know what's expected of them from a coaching point of view, from a player point of view and certainly from a supporter point of view. I mean, losing those guys with a thousand caps (between them) is massive, and for the guys with 25 caps combined it's a massive difference, but you just have to accept it and move on. Standards are set; training is as normal."
To the echo of a mostly empty Murrayfield today, we'll see if Munster and their coach can keep the fans happy.
Edinburgh v Munster,
Sky Sports 2, 12.45
Sunday Indo Sport