Thursday 27 July 2017

Scarlets fever ravages Munster

Guinness Pro12 Final: Munster 22 Scarlets 46

Scarlets players celebrate as DTH Van der Merwe goes over in splendid isolation to score his side’s fifth try on Saturday. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Scarlets players celebrate as DTH Van der Merwe goes over in splendid isolation to score his side’s fifth try on Saturday. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The problem with exceeding expectations is they rise along with your unexpected success. Before the start of Rassie Erasmus's first season in charge, a European semi-final and a Guinness PRO12 final appearance would have been considered a very progressive campaign.

But as Munster rose through the ranks, defying their seeding and last year's performance, the rugby public began to believe in this team.

When Saracens proved too strong it was easy to dismiss. Saturday's humiliating defeat to Scarlets was different.

The Reds topped the PRO12 table and had dealt with all-comers along the way. To be blown away in this manner undermines the whole campaign.

Understandably, Erasmus was hugely complimentary of the new champions who earned their title the hard way; beating Irish opposition in Dublin on successive weekends.

Emphatic

Scarlets' Hadleigh Parkes and Munsters' Simon Zebo. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Scarlets' Hadleigh Parkes and Munsters' Simon Zebo. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

For four successive seasons, this fixture has delivered emphatic results and has rewarded the team who approached the game in the more positive manner.

Munster's straightforward game-plan saw them through the winter months, but with the ground hardening they have stalled. Even in wet conditions on Saturday, it was the more expansive side whose skills stood up to the task.

Despite having a week to review the Scarlets' attacking system, Munster were beaten the same way Leinster were in the semi-final. Erasmus said it wasn't systematic, but part of a general malaise.

Scarlets were sensational at times, but during the first-half they simply took the chances that Munster handed them. The Irish province played a crucial role in their own downfall.

Scarlets' DTH Van der Merwe celebrates scoring a try. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Scarlets' DTH Van der Merwe celebrates scoring a try. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Their first try will be remembered for Rhys Patchell's excellent cross-kick to Liam Williams but it started with a dreadful Francis Saili clearance and was exacerbated by a silly penalty concession by CJ Stander.

Their second was a length-of-the-pitch effort that saw Jon Davies and Steff Evans mercilessly punish Dave Kilcoyne's loose knock-on, their third came from John Ryan slipping off Scott Williams before he put Gareth Williams away.

The fourth was a sweet moment for Kildare's Tadhg Beirne who powered his way through four Munster forwards to score, but the field position came from another sloppy spill from Tommy O'Donnell.

Four tries in 30 minutes is a dreadful return for any defence. In truth, it could have been six or seven.

The errors were compounded by the Scarlets' apparent ruthlessness, but if they bother to do a review on their win the Welsh side will find they might have been even further than 22-3 up because they left three clear try-scoring opportunities behind them on top of the four they scored in the opening 30 minutes.

Munsters' Conor Murray and Scarlets' Rhys Patchel. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Munsters' Conor Murray and Scarlets' Rhys Patchel. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Munster pulled back a well-worked, simple try from Tyler Bleyendaal that gave them hope before the break, but they needed to score next and couldn't. Instead, DTH van der Merwe beat three defenders out wide to score after Saili knocked on when he should have done a lot better.

"You have to be realistic," was Erasmus's calm assessment.

"I know it's a tough thing to say and maybe not the right thing that people will want to hear, but it's the reality.

"You look at how much you've grown this season, and you will know that when you get to the last game of the season, and we've grown to be finalists, and Scarlets have been building that squad for two or three seasons, and we've been doing it for 10/11 months.

"I'm not upset with the players, the only thing that's bad is that we've lost, but it's worse not to give something back to the supporters, who have been through a lot this season.

"They've been awesome, that's the sad thing. But the great thing is we've outgrown 10 other teams, and European teams, that's the great thing.

"The sad thing is to lose in the final and not give your fans more back. So, we have to be realistic about this, they are the facts.

"We got smashed today. We didn't score close to as many points as they scored, but I think you must look at the entire season and ask how was the defence? Was it a solid defensive system or not?

"What are we going to work on? And then again, well done to Wayne (Pivac), he found some holes, mostly from turnover ball, knock-ons and giving them possession on a platter.

"It's definitely not the defence coach, there were some guys who missed tackles, one-on-one tackles.

"It's disappointing because that's not the standard we had this whole season and it's a pity it happened in a final."

Erasmus conceded that he and his coaches need to improve Munster's attacking game, but he refused to lose sight of the progress made this year.

"We were a write-off when we started here; everyone said it wouldn't work - myself and Axel (Anthony Foley) will never be able to work together, how can they get a South African guy in and how are they going to believe in one another," he reflected.

"How can you get Felix Jones in at 29? Jerry (Flannery) is only 38, where has he coached before? You bring another South African (Jacques Nienaber) in and people said it would never work.

"Apart from that, people saying it would never work, Anthony passed away... so for me the proudest thing out of this is that people stuck together, back to back, backing one another.

"That's something to build on, even if you don't have any skill, because you're really tight. That was more on the mental side of things.

"On the field, to only lose three games out of 22 in the PRO12; that's belief. To get to a (European) semi-final when you were the easy team in your pool... we're not all of a sudden bulletproof.

"I'm trying to look at those things and think it wasn't that bad. That's a stepping stone and hopefully next season we can move forward."

Their Lions head to New Zealand and their Ireland contingent to Japan. Donnacha Ryan departs for France, Saili to Harlequins and Jean Deysel returns to South Africa.

Building on this season's progress and learning from their two chastening Aviva defeats is Erasmus's summer project as he heads home on holiday.

His mission is to ensure that when Munster return to the business end next season they're ready.

MUNSTER - S Zebo (I Keatley 61); A Conway, F Saili, R Scannell (J Taute HIA 5-12, 28), K Earls; T Bleyendaal, C Murray (D Williams 72); D Kilcoyne (B Scott 68), N Scannell (R Marshall 55), J Ryan (S Archer 46); D Ryan, B Holland (J O'Donoghue 53); P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell (J Deysel 45), CJ Stander.

SCARLETS - J McNicholl; L Williams, Jonathan Davies, S Williams, S Evans (DTH van der Merwe 58); R Patchell (H Parkes 55), G Davies (J Evans 52); R Evans (W Jones 52), R Elias, S Lee (W Kruger 28); L Rawlins (D Bulbring 63), T Beirne; A Shingler, James Davies, J Barclay (capt) (W Boyde 62).

REF - N Owens (Wales).

Irish Independent

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