Conor George: Munster are not the force they once were – on or off the pitch
Province's appeal clearly suffering after lean few years
Published 21/10/2013 | 05:00
WHERE to now for Munster? Should they rejoice in victory or worry that they made such hard work of it against a side that was far from being at its strongest?
The return fixture in Kingsholm in January could well be a pool decider. By then Munster will have endured tough back-to-back fixtures against Perpignan while Gloucester could well have gathered the maximum 10 points from their encounters with Edinburgh.
For certain, Gloucester will win both those games to keep them at the head of the pool for the game against Munster.
Matters are not as they should be with Munster. They are not a team playing with any degree of consistency. How else can you explain beating Leinster one week, losing to Edinburgh the next and just about seeing off a shadow Gloucester side the following week?
Even more concerning is that it is not just on the field where they are experiencing problems. Their inability to sell out their two highest-profile games of the season so far – Leinster and Gloucester – is indicative of the changing fortunes in the province.
It was reported that just over 20,000 tickets were sold for the game against Leinster, which was their first of the season in Limerick, but there were far less in attendance.
The 23,510 present on Saturday night was an improvement but time was Heineken Cup tickets for Thomond Park were the hottest thing around.
Munster have had a lean few years and their appeal has clearly suffered. This is particularly noticeable in the slide in the quality of their recruits.
Leinster, for example, lost Jonathan Sexton at the same time Munster bade farewell to Ronan O'Gara. Leinster compensated for Sexton's loss by recruiting Jimmy Gopperth, who is now their first-choice out-half.
They are also stumping up for Ian Madigan out of the budget afforded them by the IRFU.
Munster's response to the loss of O'Gara – to whom they offered terms – was to promote JJ Hanrahan from a development to a full contract and laud the potential of Academy player Johnny Holland.
Holland is a prospect, the same way Gerry Hurley, the 28-year-old scrum-half on a training contract, is a good player but Munster are in danger of being left so far behind by their peers they won't be able to catch up.
The last successful 'wow' signing by Munster was Doug Howlett... in 2007.
It was hoped Jean de Villiers would follow in his footsteps but his form was so poor that he turned out to be a very expensive year-long experiment that didn't work.
Munster are not the force they once were – on or off the pitch.
On the pitch they don't have the same quality of player they once had. But what they can do is make the most of the talent they have at their disposal.
If they are to experience any semblance of success this season they must adjust how they play the game.
They have the players capable of playing a more expansive game than is traditional but too often they invariably seek to put the ball through the hands of their three-quarters too far from the opposition try-line.
Their running attacks are too often too lateral, with players taking the ball while standing and nobody running inside channels.
Casey Laulala was the one player who showed he had the ability to side-step a tackle and he did so on occasions on Saturday. But the statistics point to a puzzling feature of Munster's play in central midfield and highlight an area that needs to be forensically examined if they are to progress.
For all the ball the Munster midfield see they are not making it count. Laulala was credited, along with Peter O'Mahony, with having 13 carries – Munster's highest – but he didn't feature in the top three for metres made. Keith Earls and Johne Murphy were both credited with 69 metres with O'Mahony on 66.
Coach Rob Penney suggested that Munster "never looked like we were going to bust open and rip them to shreds because of their defensive capabilities," while also praising his own defence for limiting Gloucester's attacking threat but that is only part of the reality.
Twice Keith Earls showed that there is no defence against genuine attacking nous and blistering pace. Earls' cameos were informative for they showed the benefit of putting a winger in space with ball-in-hand instead of having, as still happens, more cumbersome forwards taking possession in the tramlines.
Munster showed against Leinster that they can strike the perfect balance. Against Gloucester they reverted to aimless lateral moves too often.
It must be a huge concern at this juncture because they are 16 months further down the track and their efforts to develop a more coherent attacking pattern in their play behind the scrum have not yielded a great dividend.
The underlying message is that Munster still need a lot of improvement if they are to repeat last season's achievement in getting out of the pool.
Penney has said often that he has given the players freedom to "play what's in front of them" and, ultimately, their season will depend upon the decisions made on the pitch.