Thursday 8 December 2016

David Kelly: Munster can aim for the stars after hitting rare heights

Published 25/10/2016 | 02:30

Bleyendaal: Delivered fine display Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Bleyendaal: Delivered fine display Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

And so, as they must, Munster move on.

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Forever changed, after what they have lost, but also perhaps irrevocably altered because of what they may have re-discovered.

The grief will always remain, but the re-building of shattered lives offers an opportunity for the re-affirmation of a re-shaped identity and purpose within Munster Rugby.

Last Saturday in Thomond Park may have set an almost impossibly high standard but, at the very least, it was a reminder of how the many components of a squad that had been underachieving for so long are capable of summoning exalted standards.

In the short term, one can easily see how there may be a natural, understandable emotional dip when the side travel to Revenhill this weekend but, broadly, a season that may have promised nothing but emptiness could deliver more than many thought possible.

Two sporting themes interlinked inextricably last Saturday: firstly, that Anthony Foley's primary frustration was that he knew such a performance was lurking and, secondly, that amidst all the understandable emotional energy and animated aggression, Munster's was a performance brimming with technical aptitude and tactical acuity.

If it were conceivable to strip the 80 minutes of sport from its wider context, it was indeed a statement of intent, to bonus point a dark horse who, seven days previously, had delivered the same result to a Leicester Tigers side who, in turn, defeated last season's beaten finalists, and their 2016 semi-final conquerors, 24 hours later.

Whether it was John Ryan, a one-time loosehead prematurely dispatching a multi-international opponent to the bench, or Tyler Bleyendaal delivering the perfectly pitched, all-court out-half game, Munster's ability, cloaked in confusion and inhibition for too long, was belatedly evident.

Whether they can resource themselves for a punishing campaign at the same performance standard is, of course, questionable, but it is beyond doubt that, on their day, Munster can play and beat the best.

The grim irony is that Foley rarely was able to deploy in his two-year stewardship the "middle five", the half-backs and back-row, who starred on Saturday.

Teams are built upon combinations designed for set-piece and phased play and, after all their injury travails, Munster's collective was evident for all to see, with Donnacha Ryan returning to his pre-injury standard alongside the now seemingly immoveable Billy Holland in the engine room.

The scrum is more than secure: it is now a weapon; so too the often haphazardly used maul of recent times; the lineout remains a work in progress, notwithstanding Duncan Casey's worrisome knee injury.

Bleyendaal's assuredness affected those outside him, on both sides of the ball; Rory Scannell's footballing skills continue to flourish and South African import Jaco Taute once more demonstrated his threat on the edges.

Signed on only a short-term deal, Munster were naturally cautious given Taute's history of injury problems and the calamities that afflicted the luckless Bleyendaal but surely now they will seek to tie him down to a longer contract.

And with a back three brimming with power, pace and precision, Munster have an attacking trio who can challenge the best Europe has to offer; Keith Earls' red card also allowed Simon Zebo and Darren Sweetnam to display their defensive resilience.

Munster's tactical nous was also evident; altering their gambit when reduced in numbers, moving away from a kick-chase game to narrow their focus and concentrate on engaging physically which, backed by the raw emotional energy that bullied the breakdown, simply swamped their exalted opponents.

Irish Independent

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