Monday 16 October 2017

Tony Ward: Munster's brain-dead tactics should never be repeated

Much to admire, lament and infuriate from both our semi-finalists but two best teams reached the decider

Quite why Duncan Williams kicked away possession so often on Saturday remains a mystery. Photo: Sportsfile
Quite why Duncan Williams kicked away possession so often on Saturday remains a mystery. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

So for the fifth year running we have a Champions Cup final minus an Irish presence. In a frank and honest assessment of the weekend semi-finals Munster were comprehensively outplayed while Leinster could and perhaps should have got to a fourth final. Just where does that leave Irish rugby? In as good a place as it did before either went into semi-final action.

Right now Saracens and Clermont are the two best teams in Europe and will arrive at Murrayfield for the 2017 final on May 13 as such. Leinster and Munster are works in progress with the former much further down the road than the latter in almost every respect. Does that mean the Guinness PRO12 is now a foregone conclusion? Of course not and it would be extremely disrespectful to ignore the Welsh presence in the likely semi-finals.

But in the cold light of day, the evidence in Dublin and Lyon provided a fair indication as to where both provinces currently are. For Munster it was a reality check with Saracens so much in control it was scary. Take out the opening salvo and the three botched try-scoring opportunities for the Londoners and in truth it could have been a drubbing.

No praise is high enough for CJ Stander and his converted try at the death, not because of the flattering look it gave the scoreboard, but because of the simple fact he was on the field at all. For all the man of the match gongs he has received on the back of some extraordinary performances in red I felt his display in absolute adversity ranked with the very best.

Given the nature of the injury he suffered against Toulouse there is no way he should have been on the pitch under normal circumstances. His performance in having to see out the 80 minutes with injuries to Tommy O'Donnell (Munster's best player up to his enforced departure), Peter O'Mahony and Jean Deysel, in his limited time on, represented courage personified.

The truly great players deliver when the tide is flowing the other way so with Billy Vunipola on fire, and my man of the match by a mile, under the constraints of a vice grip that loosened only once in 80 minutes for a Francis Saili break, Stander's display was reminiscent of Anthony Foley - Munster's ultimate warrior when the chips were down.

Beyond that the front row did well with Simon Zebo and Andrew Conway the best of the rest in a purely defensive capacity. The Munster midfield wasn't mapped while the half-backs were poor in the extreme. Tyler Bleyendaal has proved he has it within his capacity to deliver at provincial level but in terms of consistency I remain to be convinced. Duncan Williams - so central to the win over Toulouse - got lost along the way. Quite why both halves consistently kicked away possession (obviously to a preordained strategy) when clearly the game-plan wasn't working is a mystery.

But the biggest issue of all and one that has been papered over through defensive solidity is the lack of any semblance of creativity in midfield. God alone knows why but Saili has been pilloried all season. Much like Lifemi Mafi, or Larry Murphy as he was better known to Munster folk, this Kiwi also has that innate ability to lock-pick you cannot coach. On Saturday we had door-bashers in Jaco Taute and Rory Scannell (who is much better than that) trying to break through steel doors.

If Rassie Erasmus is genuine in his stated desire to stay then I would suggest that numbers 9, 10, 12 and 13 become his summer priorities, irrespective of what is already in place. Secondly despite all the courage shown, the brain-dead tactics employed against Saracens should never, and I mean NEVER, be repeated no matter who the opposition is.

Also, is it not time we on this side of the Irish Sea fully acknowledged the incredible job that Mark McCall has done and is continuing to do at Saracens? Not only are they winning consistently, but they are doing so in a style that is becoming likeable. Against Munster it was all hands to the pump defensively, but they still managed to score two tries and could have crossed for three more.

If a good start is half the battle then where stands a very bad one? Leinster lost to Clermont in the opening quarter despite that magnificent second-half comeback sparked by Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose in midfield.

The entire backrow were also outstanding with Rhys Ruddock exceptional. Other than experience - and losing this game at this stage will certainly help - Leinster are not far off; they consistently mix it with the teams at the top European table once again. They could have won this one but the time for this generation is fast approaching.

I am as big a fan as any of Isa Nacewa but in Lyon - particularly as captain - he let his side down. What he, and indeed Dan Leavy, did when holding Aurelien Rougerie at the ruck prior to the disallowed try (which was subsequently touched down by Leavy himself) bordered on lunacy.

Of course where the law of the jungle applies anything goes but given the number of cameras in grounds now plus the facility of the referee and/or TMO to wind back play it is tantamount to rugby suicide and it cost Leinster dearly on this occasion. Fact not opinion.

As for the Ringrose try - testimony to guts, skill, pace and determination. If he wasn't on the Lions standby list for New Zealand then he sure is now. Tadhg Furlong also had another cracking game but the line-out from throw to take is in need of urgent address. 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' but two more building blocks for Irish rugby.

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