Monday 21 August 2017

Reds running on empty in closing act of surreal season

Simon Zebo. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Simon Zebo. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

The ball tiptoes almost apologetically towards Simon Zebo, standing alone just inside his 22-metre line.

What he does next signifies desperation, defeat and despair: A skidding, slaloming kick to the safety of the touchline in the opposition half.

The leather egg has been removed from the arena; the plaything that Zebo and his team-mates have struggled to hold on to all night, but which their opponents have retained with all the familiarity and comfort of a baby's soother.

The longer it went on, it was as if the more Munster wanted to try to make things happen, the less probable it seemed their endeavour would produce an outcome.

The harder they tried, the harder they fell. It was almost painful at times; the realisation that, as much as they knew what was required, what was desperately needed, they simply couldn't access it.

Menagerie

There is a sense of sporting sadness in it all, added to the enormity of how these men have had to acquire a menagerie of unprecedented emotional discoveries in this surreal campaign.

And so they kicked the ball away. Repeatedly.

As if stung into paralysis, they reverted to their own sense of the comfortable and the familiar, the resounding kicking game that had proved sufficient on so many days before this one.

Physically, mentally, they had nothing left. Empty.

There is neither shame nor humiliation in witnessing Munster respond in this manner.

However, when Zebo kicked that ball away - as many others had done before and after him - and the missed tackle count accelerated, and a coterie of young players suddenly found beneath them, to their horror, feet of clay, Munster had the look of a collective who need a long lie-down.

They were 32-10 down when Zebo kicked. There was an hour gone, an admission that all hope of winning had evaporated. They were merely existing now.

"It's hard when you're chasing a game like that," Zebo said afterwards - as if his body was empathising with the occasion, he was hobbling badly upon the same foot that had earlier found touch.

"Field position is one thing. Running up your own backside is another."

Munster did indeed disappear into a dark place; only they can point their way towards the light.

All week they had spoken of the plan that had helped them all season and they returned to it in their most despairing moments. All at once, their unswerving faith promised sustenance, but would ultimately just suffocate them.

"At half-time we spoke about sticking to the plan because the plan had been working all year," captain Peter O'Mahony said.

Munster were on the wrong end of a hiding and their blossoming new leaders were struggling to keep their heads above water, while the more senior men were sinking beneath it.

And all the while the system in which so many moving parts were not moving well was unfit for purpose.

"We threw the plan out the window," added O'Mahony, after it became apparent that their plan wasn't working. They couldn't even find the window.

Then they were confronted by the frightening reality that, not only were they without an alternative, but even if they had one they wouldn't have a clue what to do with it.

"That's not the way we train, chasing a lead, you're open to intercepts…" Like his side, O'Mahony just trailed off.

He is in London now, preparing for a tour with a Lions squad, led by a Kiwi who coaches Wales to play a style of rugby that more resembles the straitjacketed Munster than it does the liberated Scarlets.

The discussion points are not novel, as Zebo is reminded; after the Saracens defeat in Europe, the realisation that Munster need to change was analysed and parsed for endless column inches.

"Absolutely, We're not there yet and we don't make any bones about that," Zebo stressed.

"We know we're not good enough at the moment, but a lot of strides have been taken to get to where we are.

"Last year we were pushing for top six and this season we made the semi-finals against the top seeds and now a final.

"We are going in the right direction. We just need to kick on and develop our game so we are good enough to win semi-finals and finals in years to come.

"When we have a more dominant field position, when we can strike a tiny bit wider, we can have more balls to call the big plays.

"Because you can't win semi-finals by playing within ourselves. That's what we've done to get here. But it's been a learning curve."

The skill levels are not, yet, fit for purpose.

"It's probably a mindset," Zebo added.

"Rassie knows it. We are capable of throwing the ball around as well. Decision-making is a big part of it as well, ability to execute on the big day.

"Big game players will develop into our squad now."

Munster are now the second-best Guinness PRO12 side and the fourth-best in Europe, but it is still not good enough for them and they are not good enough to earn better.

This must be the start of how the next chapter in their story ends.

Irish Independent

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