George Hook: Freak Reds victory fails to mask bad coaching
Published 16/12/2013 | 23:42
In the distant future a distinguished scientist will win a Nobel Prize for proving the connection between rugby performances beyond the normal and a small southerly province in Ireland. There is no rational reason to explain the away victories over Harlequins last year and Perpignan this year.
When the final whistle blew in Perpignan on Saturday, there was bemusement on the faces of everybody in the ground, players and spectators alike; not to mention the tens of thousands watching on television.
This was a freak result but possible because it was a contest between two very average teams that would not trouble the big performers in this year's Heineken Cup.
The two tries were the products of appalling defending, with the French more culpable in that they had a numerical advantage and still contrived to let the Munster players score after what seemed the usual ineffectual lateral attacking movement.
Meanwhile, the Munster defence contrived to convert a simple two on two into an overlap. Keith Earls, who had a fine game on the wing, demonstrated his inability to recognise who to tackle as he and Denis Hurley both tackled Joffrey Michel and left Tommaso Benvenuti free to score.
It is hard to understand how players and defence coaches earning multiples of the average national wage cannot do what players did for free while holding down a day job. Week in, week out we watch the outside attacker stride over unopposed as the defenders head like lemmings for the ball carrier inside.
Munster are badly coached, have no midfield attack and little control at fly-half. On Saturday, Perpignan broke the first line of defence at will, yet somehow the visitors survived with some last-ditch tackling.
In contrast, Munster never looked likely to score except through the forwards, where a dominant scrum and a safe line-out kept them in the match. Perpignan loosehead Sebastien Taofifénua seemed incapable of even starting the scrum in a straight position and allowed the Munster tightheads a free ride. Munster got an easy seven points from a penalty try, which demonstrated the sum total of the visitors' attacking vision.
Munster's kicking game was awful. Invariably, the ball was hoofed upfield, allowing the French to counter-attack at will.
Bad kicking was not confined to the men in red. James Hook was rested and the kicking duties fell to Tommy Allan. Had the Welshman played, Perpignan would have been out of sight.
Ian Keatley is not the answer to the Munster's No 10 problem. Twenty five years ago, he would have been plying his trade in club rugby and not in sight of a provincial cap. He is brave to a fault and has the ability to break, but he cannot control the game because he does not kick tactically, restart well or have an attacking vision.
Similarly, the coach's rejection of CJ Stander is inexplicable. Rumour has it that his workrate does not impress Rob Penney, which may be true, but the South African is a proven match-winner, a quality Munster lack in spades.
This fortunate victory may not benefit the province in the long run. The knockout stage money will be welcome but it may disguise a raft of problems, not least the coach's apparent inability to see the wood from the trees in selection.
Meanwhile, Matt O'Connor at Leinster must be wondering how his team delivered such a dismal performance a week after the heroics in England. The coach said there was no complacency, but over-confidence explains the performance.
The Northampton game plan is hardly a secret. They are boring but committed, simple but intense and brutal to a fault. By dint of sheer perseverance, they denied the home team and 47,000 spectators a pre-Christmas celebration.
The problem for the young pretenders to the thrones of Ronan O'Gara and Johnny Sexton is they are programmed to play the game a certain way and do not have the ability to change to Plan B when Plan A does not work.
Ian Madigan is an outstanding talent, but he is a running, passing No 10. As we saw last summer in Houston against the run-of-the-mill US Eagles, he is too easily disconcerted when the attacking gambit off a flat position does not work.
As the Northampton sinners rather than saints swarmed all over Leinster, it required a fly-half to sit in the pocket and kick his team forward. The old adage of 'you can penetrate a defence by going through, around or over' still holds true.
Over at the Sportsground in Galway, Connacht fought gamely against Toulouse, but their task was always impossible. This tournament allows for the magic of a one-off fairytale, but the gulf in class between the home side and visiting French giants was always going to reveal itself in the return fixture.
How Connacht respond for the rest of the season will determine Pat Lam's future in Galway. If the Samoan is correct in his assertion that Connacht have been unlucky in the Pro12 thus far, the results will have to change for the better, starting with the Dragons next weekend.
The possibility of three Irish teams in the knockout stages still holds good. The omens are not great.