Munster must learn to think on their feet
It should have represented the perfect Pro12 preparation for Heineken Cup fortnight, only someone forgot to send Munster the script. With victories secured by Leinster, Ulster and Connacht over Edinburgh, Llanelli Scarlets and Newport Gwent Dragons respectively it was not a matter of if, but by how much, Munster would complete the slam and put the seal on the perfect build-up for all four Irish provinces.
Alas, Rob Penney's work in progress chose the first game of the new year to produce what was, by some way, the most confused performance of their transitional season to date.
If taking away Ulster's previously blemish-free record represented an achievement in itself, the general consensus leaving Thomond Park the previous week was of a squad finding its way with that win (albeit over a shadow Ulster side) and another small step down the road to expansive redemption.
But they are in a quandary and now the new head coach must truly earn his stripes. He must stick to his principles and develop the type of winning rugby appropriate to success in today's game at the highest levels. To those who might struggle with the concept, the principle of 'earning the right to go wide' should come easier to Munster than most, given the forward-dominated culture to date.
Therein lies the real disappointment for me in Saturday's insipid performance. It wasn't that Cardiff were particularly good but what they did was work from inside out, thereby forcing Munster across field using the touchline as an extra defender. It is the most basic form of drift defence, but where Penney, Simon Mannix, Anthony Foley, Niall O'Donovan and the rest of the Munster think-tank must be having nightmares is the ease with which the home side made the Blues' defensive task such a doddle.
You could see Cardiff's confidence rise in the second half as, time and again, Munster ran numbers down the open side tramline.
Broadening the plan of attack does not mean moving the ball side to side for the sake of it. It necessitates changing the point of attack whether by way of inside runners, centres taking it up (and James Downey is well equipped to do that) or simple scissors and decoy switches to keep the opposition defence guessing and honest.
Unless defenders are fixed (thereby delaying the drift), there cannot be the requisite room further out. As it is, they are eating into each other's space. To that can be added the obvious; Munster forwards doing what Munster forwards do best – picking and driving the hard yards in search of that all-important momentum. It's not rocket science but the problem as of now is twofold.
Slavish adherence to the principle of moving it like a hot potato through the hands leading to (and this for me, and I'm sure for Penney, is the most difficult to accept) players who carry out the appropriate drills day in, day out not thinking on their feet, where and when it matters most in the white heat of battle. That is the root of the problem and more is the pity because they still possess, in Ronan O'Gara, the second-best playmaker in the country and the best when it comes to playing the percentages.
O'Gara's ability to open up space for others by way of deft passing is also totally underplayed. The loss of Conor Murray on Saturday was a huge blow, but the key message in the build-up to Edinburgh and Racing Metro must be one of common-sense rugby allied to individual and unit acceptance of responsibility on the field.
Perhaps I am expecting a bit much of Felix Jones given his injury problems, but the cutting edge and variation in attack from full-back is just not there. It may be Penney's least favoured option but the Simon Zebo plan, as exercised by Declan Kidney in the November series, most definitely exists and would be part of my alternatives.
By contrast to the Musgrave Park doom and gloom, the atmosphere at Ravenhill was electric as first (Ulster) beat second (Scarlets) out the gate. I am tempted to say back to full strength but they were in fact short Jared Payne, Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris, Johann Muller, Rory Best and Iain Henderson from the match-day squad. Yet a five-try thumping of the title-chasing Welsh region gives a fairly accurate indication as to where Ulster rugby is now at.
There is a bit of work still to be done before a home quarter-final can be deemed secure, but opportunity knocks for a maximum return at home to bottom-placed Glasgow on Friday.
For Mark Anscombe, the decision to run with Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy on the wings is straightforward with Payne at full-back, while Paddy Wallace will most likely get the call alongside Darren Cave as minder to Paddy Jackson. The real decision is not at inside-centre but who, and in what position, to play at half-back. Ruan Pienaar is the shoo-in but, for the good of the side, the jersey number should be double digit, not single. Paul Marshall at No 9 with Pienaar at No 10 makes for the most pragmatic combination available and would allow the selection of the hugely promising Luke Marshall alongside Cave.
We will return to Leinster and Connacht later in the week and while it might seem mission impossible we wouldn't be dancing on the reigning champions' grave just yet.