Tuesday 20 February 2018

Typical late rally fails to ease concerns for the future

Munster lack the ability to run kicks back with aggression, writes George Hook

Munster supporters would have left London with the usual confidence that once more they had defied the odds when away from home and with heady plans of a welcome for the Exiles in Limerick.

This time around, however, it may not have been a repeat of the great days of yore. This performance did not have the characteristics of old. A bonus point against a flaky London side may not be an indication that the good times are here to stay.

Tony McGahan surprised with his selection. He made calls at full-back, in the back row and at tight-head prop. More important, however, was whether the coach would make changes to the attitude and direction of his side. Or was this just recognition that his side were a spent force and this was a panic reaction?

The early signs were promising as Munster got quick ball from the first six tackle areas. Despite the weeping and gnashing of teeth at the loss of Tomás O'Leary, the arrival of Peter Stringer meant that Ronan O'Gara received the ball at pace earlier, and, more importantly, brought the out-half a yard closer to the advantage line. The first quarter went against Munster because, despite the promptings at half-back and the quick ball, Christophe Berdos refereed the laws at the breakdown and Munster, perhaps cushioned by poor refereeing in the Magners League, were adrift in the mechanism of the breakdown.

Ryan Lamb extracted the penalty to rack up a six-point lead. And insult was added to injury when Sam Tuitupou earned 10 minutes in the bin for a spear tackle on Paul Hodgson. Pacific Islanders play to the limit of the laws and Munster's centre had a record of indiscipline at Worcester.

Last season the Exiles' victory over Leinster at the RDS was based on dominance at the lineout by Bob Casey and Nick Kennedy. This time around the big men put pressure on the Damien Varley throw. Three lineouts were coughed up in the first half and consequently the home team had much more of the ball. More importantly, they looked far more comfortable with the counter-attacking game. Munster, on the other hand, played a much more structured attacking game which masqueraded as invention.

A late penalty by O'Gara reduced Munster's deficit to nine points but a listen to the dressing-room chat might have been instructive. For all his wonderful skills from the hand and awareness of space, O'Gara remains a kicking half-back. Watching the red shirts seeking space out wide, it never gave the impression of posing a threat.

In contrast, the London Irish back three ran kicks back with far more authority and variation. While their opponents ran at space, the first action by a Munster attacker was to run at a defender. The relative statistics that show the try-scoring gulf between these two sides was borne out by their attitude to counter-attack. Munster looked like a spinster who hoped the addition of eye shadow and nail varnish would make her a page-three girl.

The crucial try early in the second half was a direct result of Munster's lack of commitment to running kicks back with aggression. The slow-motion catch and leisurely steps forward allowed the chasers to close the gap and force the interception. Munster did not give in but their efforts smacked of desperation rather than confident work to reduce the deficit.

Munster entered the last quarter 11 points behind and in the past one would have expected a concerted claw-back. The comeback, if it was to happen, was certain to be assisted by the kicking of Dylan Armitage. Before this game started there were two concerns for the Exiles supporters.

Armitage and Lamb have consistently flattered to deceive. Yesterday, Lamb delivered but Armitage never looked dominant.

It was indicative of the Munster frame of mind that, as the last quarter beckoned, O'Gara went for the lineout rather than the points and after 13 phases it was Tony Buckley versus the slight full-back and Armitage won. Buckley's technique and body position was flawed and the chance was lost. The last 20 minutes were between a team that had been under the cosh many times over a decade and a team that ran scared in sight of the summit of their ambitions. One felt that when O'Gara took three points five minutes after he had rejected the opportunity it was a clear indication that he had settled for a possible bonus point.

Despite Leinster's victory over Racing Metro at the RDS, there is still a lingering suspicion that the Irish provinces remain behind the pace of adjustment to the new interpretations of the laws. Ulster continue to be totally predictable without an out-half and utterly reliant on Ruan Pienaar. Yesterday showed that Munster are near-clueless as to what is allowed at the breakdown and without invention in attack. It could be a long hard season of sport and economics.

Sunday Independent

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