Saturday 18 November 2017

Bigger challenges await Irish in European end game

Munster's expansive game crushed Treviso, but Leinster struggled, writes George Hook

George Hook

George Hook

Munster had a stroll in the park against an average Treviso yesterday. However, a Northampton victory over Perpignan today would mean that a victory over the Saints in Limerick will still be crucial.

And it's ditto for Leinster. They did the job required of them last night, eventually, but before Northampton's game today, all Blue eyes will be on London Irish, who travel to the Scarlets. All the signs point to two massive showdowns next weekend, with the Irish provinces looking for the wins which will take them forward in the competition. And remember, they are both looking to avenge opening round defeats.

The first quarter in Treviso yesterday begged the question, how did Treviso beat Perpignan? The second quarter demonstrated that if their opponents descend to a wrestling match, the Italians can make life difficult for anybody.

Munster destroyed the home team by the simple application of solid coaching principles. Tony McGahan moved the ball across the park and utilised the passing skills of the entire team to create space and time.

The result was that Munster avoided indignity at the set piece and the Italians were so demoralised that they made no effort in the few scrums that did occur.

However, when the Italians got sight of the visitors' try-line and put-in at the scrum, they demolished the Munster set-piece to an embarrassing degree. The indignity of a penalty try was avoided by a dreadful decision from referee Chris White who penalised Michele Rizzo when he clearly was vastly superior to John Hayes.

The worrying question remains: can a team with the worst scrum in the competition win the trophy? Munster cannot attack off the base of the set-piece even with a player as dynamic as David Wallace.

With Denis Leamy injured and his obvious replacement Nick Williams similarly hors de combat, McGahan can either stay with the starting trio yesterday or bring in James Coughlan to No 8, which would release Wallace to the flank.

If Munster want to win this competition, a back row with Alan Quinlan at 35 and Wallace at 33 could struggle against the quicker teams. Munster need Niall Ronan despite his lack of bulk.

The first try by Denis Hurley, owed everything to Ronan O'Gara's ability to put Keith Earls into space outside his marker. Irish back play is founded on the principle of beating the rush defence by long passes to the outside centre. The risks are there as witnessed by the Australian intercept in Croke Park, when Brian O'Driscoll failed to hold on to the pass. The scheme has a high risk-and-reward component.

The big difference between the professional and amateur eras is that the modern player is an immeasurably better passer off either hand. Interestingly, the first two scores came from passes off the left or weaker hand of the three quarters. In the good old days, right wings spent their month without a pass while their more fortunate colleagues on the other side received whatever was going.

The issue with the breakdown law was made crystal clear in the opening minutes. Munster ran the ball out of their own 22 and were promptly penalised at the ruck. Marius Goosen pulled the kick wide but the penalty showed just why teams engage in aerial ping pong rather than risk giving away kicks in their own half.

Happily, Munster were made of sterner stuff or were less afraid of their opponents and continued the expansive plans of the coach. It will be interesting to see the mindset when faced with the sterner test of Northampton.

The match was watched by Nick Mallett, who faces the unenviable task of trying to survive in the Six Nations championship without Sergio Parisse, the finest No 8 in the world.

Treviso were Italy in microcosm: strong at the set-piece, aggressive in the physical confrontation but appalling in defence. It looks like a tough new year for the South African coach.

Despite the problems in the scrum, it is difficult to look beyond Munster, Toulouse, Clermont and the winner of the Leinster/London Irish group. That breakdown also has connotations for the championship. The Top 14 competition in France seems to be nothing for Gallic rugby and O'Gara's control and passing suggest that the No 10 debate for the opening game against Italy will still open up to the wire.

This may not be a vintage year for European club rugby but the expectation that the French would be eager to win the trophy in Paris does not seem credible. Indeed, the contradiction between domestic and foreign competition continues to dog the Heineken Cup. It must be an object of discussion in the corridors of the ERC. Selecting sub-standard teams after the early rounds distorts the pools in the same way that the Italians have done since the competition's inception.

Munster and Leinster will not care how another triumph is manufactured. Yesterday showed that are in rude health even if creaking in some sectors.

Sunday Independent

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