Tony Ward: Munster will need three wins from three to avoid disaster
Published 05/04/2016 | 02:30
After a frenetic weekend of old-style inter-provincial rugby, it's time for cool heads all round. On the plus side, were a curtain to be drawn on the Pro12 right now, we would have Leinster and Connacht with home semi-finals in the play-offs and all four Irish teams in next season's Champions Cup along with the Scarlets (Wales), Glasgow (Scotland) and eleventh-placed Zebre (Italy). The latter's involvement is now gone beyond a joke for everyone involved.
But, of course, there is no curtain coming down just yet - not before the three more intriguing rounds to come. And given the complexity of the fixture list, we can expect a lot of twists and turns before the final series is completed on May 7 by way of concurrent kick-offs in all four countries.
After the weekend's action, Munster will be closest to crisis mode in the coming weeks with Edinburgh just a point behind in the race for everything. Ironically, it is Leinster who can do Anthony Foley's men a massive early favour when they take on the Scottish side in the RDS on Friday week
But back to Saturday's enthralling encounter at the Aviva. I say enthralling because that is what it was. Those who expected a wide-ranging, free-running, expansive encounter are living in cloud cuckoo land. It was never going to be that, particularly given the context of the fixture never mind its history and tradition.
From first minute to last you dared not blink for fear of missing something. Surely that is the essence of competitive sport?
Yes, there were handling errors, loose kicking and turned-over ball but that comes with the territory of relentless pressure. In terms of commitment, every player gave his all and, as for some of the post-match comment, specifically that aimed at the likes of Ian Keatley and Cian Healy, it drags what is still a unique and special game to a new low.
Munster's decision to replace the impressive Johnny Holland with Keatley was a critical call given its timing and context. Holland had been going better than well in the game in his pivotal role. The only rationale I can see in an attempt to justify it is that it was a pre-ordained strategy whereby those starting are given a time frame (usually 50 minutes to an hour) and those in reserve know when to expect the call so they are not coming into the action cold - mentally or physically.
It is a modern phenomenon in the sport that I detest and flies in the face of intelligent coaching.
Rugby as a 23-man game detracts from its 15-man predecessor whereby much like boxing you looked to outwit and outlast your opponent on the basis of better conditioning and tactical strategy before landing the killer blow.
Rugby has lost that strategic principle and is much the poorer for it. I'm not being wise in hindsight here. I believe Keatley to be a much better footballer than he is given credit for but because he is Ronan O'Gara's immediate successor he is suffering on the back of it.
And on this massive occasion some of Foley's interview comments in the aftermath added to the level of bewilderment.
"We had a very experienced international out-half on the bench that has led us for the majority of the season. With a game as tight as that you don't want to be putting on your ten with five or ten minutes to go. You want to be making that change earlier," he said. "It was important to give him (Keatley) the opportunity to get us into position to win the game"
Unless you are working to a preordained strategy - which is madcap stuff - then you call it as you see it. If Holland was good enough to start - which I felt was a bold call in every respect - then given the quality of his performance to the point of the substitution he should have been deemed good enough to see it out.
I am also old-school about taking points when they are on offer. The real issue for me was not the rush of blood to Dave Kilcoyne's head in the final play - which it assuredly was - but the decision a little over two minutes before that to go for the win by way of a kick to the corner when a division of the spoils (at least) was so clearly there and with a guaranteed kick re-start still to come.
Munster now have three massive games coming up against Connacht, Edinburgh and the Scarlets and all three are still in the mix for Champions Cup and a top-four Pro12 finish.
If they are going to do it - premier European Rugby involvement is essential - then they are sure going to have to do it the hard way. And with a visit to the Sportsground followed by Edinburgh in Irish Independent Park and finishing with the Scarlets in Thomond, that means three wins from three.
One other issue and it relates to comments from Johnny Sexton in relation to non-officiating by match officials. As regular readers know, it is a bugbear of mine, particularly in relation to touch judges, assistant referees, call them what you will. Sometimes it appears that when not in the middle these guys are on a day off.
There were three incidents on Saturday that really rankled: Simon Zebo's deliberate slap into touch to prevent a try right on the stroke of half-time; Keith Earls' deliberate knock-forward from a Conor Murray box-kick; and very late hit on Luke McGrath gathering a grubber metres in front of the Leinster player - I think it was Isa Nacewa who kicked the ball ahead.
As Sexton so rightly said, "Maybe the referee didn't have a great view (for Zebo) but it's two feet in front of the touch judge. They're meant to be called assistant referees now and meant to have as big a role as the referee."
Cantankerous he may be but I couldn't agree more with the man of the match on this occasion.