McGahan's ill-disciplined side nearing end of the road
Writing on the wall for a team manifestly inferior to celebrated forebears, writes George Hook
Munster face a difficult task in qualifying for the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup after a defeat by Ospreys yesterday. With Toulon winning over the London Irish, the trip away for Munster will rank with any in their long and distinguished history. In the past, the possibility of an away win was real but this time the side does not appear to have the armoury up front to take on teams with serious intent.
The most dominant figure in the game was referee Romain Poite. He allowed everything and exerted little or no control. The result was a match of fits and starts that delivered little or no continuity. Refereeing is now reaching crisis point in the Heineken Cup. The Ulster game in Bath was dreadfully refereed and it got worse in the Liberty Stadium in Swansea.
The second most noticeable figure for all the wrong reasons was Tony Buckley whose performance yesterday must surely end his pretence at being an international prop forward. The Munster scrum was awful and improved not a whit with the arrival of John Hayes. However, Hayes is at the end of a career whereas Buckley continues to make a mockery of Declan Kidney's rejection of Mike Ross.
This week has seen Munster's one-eyed reaction at its worst. Ex-players were rolled out on the media to extol the virtues of Paul O'Connell and the dastardly actions of Jonathan Thomas who pulled his shirt. Listening to former international Mick Galway this week, one expected Benedict XVI to come to Limerick to canonise the Young Munster lock. Galwey went further to suggest that the Munster scrum had been outstanding this week. Frankie Sheehan even went so far as to suggest that the Welshman should have been punished rather than the Irishman.
It will be interesting to hear the excuses for yesterday two spear tackles; the first unremarked by the referee by Keith Earls and Sam Tuitupou and the second by Lifeimi Mafi, who received a yellow card for his trouble. Munster have a proud record in this competition, they do not need to descend to the level of farce in defence of the indefensible. Tuitupou has form since his days in New Zealand and his lack of discipline may ultimately cost his team dear even though he escaped on this occasion.
The scrum problem was terminal for Munster yesterday because every worthwhile piece of possession which ended with a set piece was immediately set at naught by at worst the concession of a penalty or at best by the failure to recycle the ball. Even London Irish without any interest in the competition could make life difficult, while one has to imagine that Toulon, powered by Jonny Wilkinson, will be favourites to end Munster's long run of success at attaining the knockout stages.
Denis Leamy followed up on last week's Man of the Match performance with another strong display, marred by the stupid concession of three points. The number eight has a discipline problem which made his midweek comments on that very topic incongruous. He ended last week with a dangerous swinging arm at the final ruck and started this week with an ugly challenge on Dan Biggar. There is a lot of back-row talent at Declan Kidney's disposal and the Leamy will need to do better if he wants to feature in the World Cup.
Mike Phillips had a poor game at scrumhalf but it was more than equalised by an outstanding performance by Biggar at outhalf. He kicked well from the hand and ground and used his back line expertly. Tommy Bowe's move to centre was a huge improvement on last week's midfield pairing and James Hook benefitted accordingly. The backline bristled with intent unlike the callow performance of last week.
There was an impression that this time they wanted to win and in style. The Welsh effort was hampered by an average lineout and some rudimentary handling errors. Munster will with some justification point to the pressure on the Ospreys line which could have yielded a try or more but they were lucky for the Earls try when Doug Howlett clearly took out Richard Fussell. The failure to spot the offence was just one of a litany missed by the referee.
Writing Munster off is a cottage industry but this team is manifestly inferior to its distinguished predecessors. The scrum has been a weak link since the arrival of Hayes and Marcus Horan but it is now an albatross around the neck of the rest of the team.
The failure up front is increasingly being matched by the lack of a cutting edge in midfield. From the earliest days, the Red Army could marvel at the quality of successive centre pairings. Sadly, no longer as the coach has to choose from average imports and an out-of-position Earls.
Yesterday may have been the last rites for this great province. The funeral will be in Toulon.