George Hook: Reds full of courage but rely too much on O'Gara
Published 17/12/2012 | 05:00
After the euphoria and upsets of the last weekend, Irish rugby supporters were brought back to earth barely a week later when all four provinces lost in varying degrees of commitment.
Munster, as expected, lost but not quite in the way imagined. This team is just a pale shadow of the great Munster teams of the past and relies to a huge degree on heart and courage backed up by the Ronan O'Gara kicking game.
The veteran fly-half kicked from the hand with all the skill of yore, but it would have needed another 100pc kicking tally to win this match and it didn't happen.
Except for a brief period in the second half, Munster were totally dominated territorially and it always looked like only Saracens' lack of cutting edge could keep the visitors in touch.
Watching this game left nobody in any doubt as to why Saracens are one of the worst try-scoring sides in the English Premiership.
It all looks good when viewed on the blackboard, but in the cut and thrust of high-quality rugby it is really very basic and simple. Yes, the line-out works, the scrum is powerful and the out-half is a good kicker from the hand and from the ground.
However, this team relies hugely on its two big centres, Joel Tomkins and Brad Barritt. It was a testament to Saracens' predictability that Munster were in the match for almost its entire duration.
In fact, were it not for the concession of a dreadful intercept try following a poor pass from Owen Farrell, Munster might still be in Vicarage Road trying to make a line break.
But despite the second defeat in four games, the southern province could earn a runner-up spot and can mathematically still top the pool. Should this team get through to the knockout stages by either route, it will be a testament to their character rather than their skill.
The Munster effort was aided by a very average refereeing performance by the French official, Monsieur Gauzere.
This week most of the marginal calls went in their favour. He missed some crucial knock-ons, penalised Schalk Brits instead of Conor Murray when Simon Zebo (below) was upended after a high catch and had an unusual view of five seconds at the ruck.
A subtle difference is now emerging in the defensive patterns of the teams in this tournament. The French and English teams are coming up very flat, whereas the Irish sides are standing off more and seemingly conceding the outside channel.
The French profit against this kind of defence but backlines like Saracens' are simply not good enough to get into space.
Time and again, that Munster backline were pushed backwards by the onrushing defence and only O'Gara's outstanding chip for Zebo threatened to break the Saracens line.
The quality of the Londoners' rucking was outstanding and time and again the speed of ball presentation should have led to a breakthrough.
It was not surprising that a kick by scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth led to the David Strettle try.
In truth, this was a poor game, made watchable only for the intensity of the exchanges and the uncertainty of the final result. It is indicative of the overall standard of the pool that we will go into 2013 unsure of what the order might be of the top three teams.
The outstanding player on the Munster side was Zebo, who was magnificent in the air and posed a threat every time he ran with the ball. In recent months, he has matured into a top-class wing or full-back and the Irish experience has been good for him.
Sadly, Felix Jones had to leave the pitch and one hopes that this unluckiest of players can be back on the field soon as he very much looks the part at No 15.
Despite some strong individual performances by the back row, Munster now rely more than ever on O'Gara and only a perfect kicking performance by him, it seems, can lead to victory.
Coach Rob Penney made the surprising decision to substitute Wian du Preez for Marcus Horan. The Limerick man was never at any time a great scrummager, but now in the twilight of his career is easy meat for any tighthead. In the closing minutes, Munster needed a basic scrum, instead it capitulated.
Although to be fair, it was in difficulty all afternoon and, like Leinster on Saturday, far too many easy penalties were conceded in the set-piece.
Joe Schmidt and Penney will spend the holidays trying to work out a way to prevent opponents from targeting substandard scrum units.
This pool looks like it will go down to the wire and that pencil and paper will be required to work out the final places. It is entirely possible that in January Saracens will lose in Paris but beat Edinburgh at home.
Meanwhile, given that the Scots are now the whipping boys of the pool, who would deny that Munster have a chance of five points in the Scottish capital before winning another famous victory in Thomond Park over a callow French side?