Tuesday 6 December 2016

Tony Ward: Worrying questions for Munster after latest big-day flop

Published 01/06/2015 | 02:30

Paul O’Connell stands alongside Simon Zebo and his Munster team-mates after their defeat against Glasgow in the Pro12 Final (Paul Mohan /Sportsfile)
Paul O’Connell stands alongside Simon Zebo and his Munster team-mates after their defeat against Glasgow in the Pro12 Final (Paul Mohan /Sportsfile)

This was not quite as rudderless or soulless as the performance at Saracens, but Munster came up substantially short when it really mattered for the second time this season.

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This from the province that prides itself on turning up with all guns blazing on the big day.

There's no disgrace in being beaten by Gregor Townsend's well-tutored Glasgow, but Munster's listless naivete in the final is not acceptable.

There are mitigating factors. Joe Schmidt would struggle to adequately replace Peter O'Mahony and Conor Murray in the Ireland team; for Munster, they are pretty much indispensable. With Tommy O'Donnell also ruled out, the Reds were missing three key cogs.

From six to ten is the fulcrum around which almost every team functions. So with Ian Keatley again underperforming and the gain-line-busting CJ Stander doing what he does best only in minimal fits and starts, Munster were struggling.

Almost every Glasgow player outshone his opposite number.

If you had to select a combined team on the basis of this game what Munster player would make the cut? Maybe Andrew Smith, who produced his best display in his last performance in red. And I'm clutching at straws here.

Even Paul O'Connell failed to make a major impact. He gave it his all as ever, but Johnny Gray, the exceptional Leone Nakarawa and replacement Aly Kellock were the men ruling the planet of the giants.

Send-off

The retiring Kellock got the appropriate send-off from his peers, O'Connell most definitely did not.

While Munster edged it in the scrum for the best part of an hour and did produce a comeback of sorts either side of the break, this was Glasgow winning the Glasgow way - and for all but that 20-minute period, with relative ease.

Right from the start there was a vibrancy, a sense of purpose and the cohesion of a side primed to play the opposition and not the occasion.

They succeeded admirably, whether with the ball or without, as the four-try-to-one return adequately reflects. They might well have had another couple in that opening half too save for Denis Hurley's last-ditch hand-trip and Felix Jones' body-on-the-line block.

Munster were squeezed tight, with front-five forwards exposed to the best counter-attacking back-three in the competition in Tommy Seymour, DTH van de Merwe and the outstanding Stuart Hogg.

Finn Russell, Henry Pyrgos, Josh Strauss and the official man of the match Nakarawa were equally brilliant

The final scoreline was fully reflective of the gap in class and level of performance on the day.

The Munster tackling was poor, the attempted attacking close to clueless, with the kicking out of hand again futile. This desire to kick free ball to an opposition geared to counter (the Warriors have scored more tries than any other team in the Pro12 from their own half) is beyond comprehension.

So where to now for Munster? This defeat is a massive kick to the solar plexus. They weren't just beaten, they were comprehensively outplayed in almost every facet of the game.

When they had the ball they looked rudderless, and when they didn't have it, they were just as lost - most unlike Munster.

The Reds are facing some worrying questions for next season and beyond.

The difficulty in finding a replacement for the departing O'Connell goes without saying, with a Dave Foley/Donnacha Ryan combination the most likely.

The back-row will be as strong as ever, with Jack O'Donoghue coming through and Robin Copeland set to return. The big issue is in midfield - out-half and both centres. The introduction of Francis Saili and a fully fit Tyler Bleyendaal can't happen quickly enough.

And however controversial the notion, if the IRFU have their wits about them they will at least discuss with Ian Madigan the notion of a move south.

Assuming Madigan is involved in the World Cup squad as a utility-back, it would appear his designs on an out-half role at Leinster are gone for good, given the imminent return of Johnny Sexton.

I feel great sympathy for Keatley, but he looks ill at ease at No 10 right now. It looks like Sexton, Madigan (in a utility role) and Paddy Jackson for the upcoming World Cup.

A Munster experience best forgotten.

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