Tuesday 28 March 2017

Reds left with much to ponder

Defeat at Thomond Park to old rivals Leinster on Friday night will have sharpened the minds in Munster ahead of next weekend's crucial Heineken Cup clash with Northampton
Defeat at Thomond Park to old rivals Leinster on Friday night will have sharpened the minds in Munster ahead of next weekend's crucial Heineken Cup clash with Northampton

With Paul O'Connell marked absent, it was left to Alan Quinlan and Mick O'Driscoll to conduct what is almost as rare a sight in Limerick as a wet public bar on Good Friday: a post-mortem to follow defeat in Thomond Park.

The message was rudimentary, about not feeling sorry for themselves and all that. This being Easter, if any team knows about crucifixion before resurrection, it is Munster. They have adopted it as a badge of honour from years of famine through days of bounty. Like Padraig Harrington admitted as his occasional failing during the week, Munster must now remember just how to react to fear as well as they have done in the past. If they don't, their Heineken Cup dream will end next Saturday shortly after 7.0.

Whether O'Connell joins them in the pre-match huddle a couple of hours earlier will do much to alter the mood music; his groin strain, a bolt from the blue emanating from the Munster camp last week, hangs like a Sword of Damocles above this side.

If his shock withdrawal -- and the not insignificant absence of the flying and unpredictable spark of Keith Earls -- undermined them so much against Leinster, how can this team hope to react when the Northampton Saints go marching in to what for them is familiar enough territory?

Stripped

For all O'Driscoll's astonishing defensive work in the air and Ian Dowling's honesty, Munster will be stripped bare should the Limerick Lions miss out, forcing them to continue their over-reliance on the ageless Quinlan, only one truly class centre (Jean de Villiers) and the nerveless Ronan O'Gara.

Down the corridor, an odd burst of snatched song coursed through the air; winning in Thomond Park, with so many absentees, was another feather in the cap of this Leinster side.

Doing the league double over the Reds is a Brucie Bonus, as they will acknowledge the history that recalls a Leinster league double in the year of a Munster Heineken Cup win; few would boast too loudly that the definitive course of the season altered merely because of Friday's events.

And yet, we had anticipated that Munster's need was greater but ultimately Leinster emerged seemingly wanting more. Hence, we must presume, the surfeit of question marks will hover above the team in red.

Munster's scrummaging difficulties can't be ignored, leading to Eoin Reddan's most rampant form of the season and demonstrating just how impotent Tomas O'Leary is behind a beaten pack. David Wallace, not for the first time, looked all his nigh-on 34 years, ensuring the even older Quinlan's agelessness remains as much a mystery as his absence from the Ireland team.

But it was the pervading lack of zip and pace -- here Earls' counter-attacking was sorely missed -- which really shocked the home support, as much as the tactical incoherence. Leinster, once more, belatedly inveigled themselves into the Munster psyche.

"You could pick out discipline but I think Leinster played smarter," appreciated Jerry Flannery, a raucous exception to the Munster malaise.

"They don't play any rugby in their half -- nearly all their scores come from penalty kicks. They've a very strong defence and they look to pin teams down and pick teams off with penalties.

"It is a setback. Generally, we've always managed to pull out a big league win coming into big Heineken Cup matches. We've lost and we have to look beyond that. At least it was a really intense game; we could have had a game with no intensity.

"If we can take this effort, and match that but play smarter -- we made it a bit easy for Leinster, without taking too much credit from them.

"Defences will probably come out on top next week, but we need to be more smarter, more streetwise and sort out the discipline. We've just been as affected by international disruptions as Northampton and Leinster. It's a matter of jumping the gun ahead of them.

"You've always next week to redeem yourself in rugby, that's the beauty of it. We can't feel sorry for ourselves."

Added to all that, 15 penalties won't win a Heineken Cup quarter-final, even under old "friend" Nigel Owens.

Donncha O'Callaghan said the discipline was terrible. The players obviously got it in the ear from Tony McGahan. "I thought some of the stuff we did was crazy at times," said the coach.

"We really need to trust the defence. We had players playing for themselves when they're not in a position to see the whole situation."

Northampton didn't look so hot themselves on Saturday but, with a trophy already under their belt, tipping over with a slipshod 14-7 win away to basement strugglers Leeds, while allowing hooker Dylan Hartley to nurse a minor injury, was a decent day's work for Jim Mallinder.

"It was not a good performance but we came here and got the job done without playing well," said the Saints coach.

Leinster's opponents, Clermont, are equally comfortable in their league and surrendered all the points in their trip to Paris to face Michael Cheika's next employers, struggling giants Stade Francais. As if embarrassed by an early try, Clermont's stomach for an 80-minute fight was clearly not there, although their relish for the forward battle remains a constant; the luxury to rest Jamie Cudmore, Alexandre Audebert, Brock James, Marius Joubert and Benoit Baby emphasising their vast resources.

James and Morgan Parra will be the chief lieutenants directing the heavy traffic of their eight; although it is impossible to omit the possibility of Baby or Jimmy Malzieu chasing down Girvan Dempsey with as much relish as Fionn Carr a week ago.

The last time Leinster enjoyed a memorable triumph against Munster, the 30-0 thrashing in October, the Heineken Cup champions fizzled into nothing in the collisions (too feeble) and the breakdown (too high) a week later when crumbling to London Irish at home.

After reacting to the day off from physicality against Connacht, Leinster must beware a retreat into their physical shell. That, however, is highly unlikely given the acknowledgement of what lies ahead against the French behemoths.

"Friday was an excellent preparation for next week's fixture," said Cheika before leaving for Paris on Saturday. "But we had this the last time and we fizzled out the next day. It's all about how we react. But we've spoken about the experience so if we don't learn from that ...

"But we are facing the best team in Europe, probably, so we have to be better than tonight to beat those chaps. We need to know in terms of hard work and honesty what we need to bring on to next week now. The guys realised their work rate and contact work was poor against Connacht and we knew we'd get axed if we didn't improve that this week.

"I wasn't angry. In the past, we would have let a game like that drift pass us.

"But it's important we addressed what went wrong. And a game like Friday's gave us the reality we needed because we know we need to play even better next week."

Shane Jennings and Reddan are sparkling and Brian O'Driscoll is likely to return alongside an admittedly frail Gordon D'Arcy -- alas, Shane Horgan will probably miss out. Still, Leinster's mental strength will match their impressive physical prowess.

Whether Munster can boast of such a successful marriage can only be framed behind closed doors this week.

"It's a defining game so we can't really mope around," adds O'Callaghan.

Too much work to be done.

Irish Independent

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