Tuesday 22 May 2018

Comment: European semi-final will continue to be Munster’s limit until province bring in their perfect 10

Talking point

Munster's Ian Keatley. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster's Ian Keatley. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

They play in the same competition, but Munster are operating under different rules to the likes of Racing 92 and nothing summed that up like the out-halves on show on Sunday.

On one side you had Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan who have seven Ireland caps between them, on the other stood Pat Lambie and Dan Carter who played opposite one another in the 2015 World Cup semi-final and have 168 combined appearances for the Springboks and the All Blacks.

Consider the list of out-halves to have started on the winning teams of the last nine teams to win the European Champions Cup; Ronan O'Gara, Johnny Sexton, Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau and Owen Farrell.

Keatley doesn't live in that company and his limitations were exposed in Bordeaux.

Nobody wants to kick him when he is down, but it is clear that if they are to take the next step and reach a first final since 2008 the province need to find another solution at out-half.

That the Dubliner played a big role in getting them to the last four should not be over-looked and the fact that they reached the latter stages of the tournament is an achievement in itself given their comparatively small budget, the limitations to their squad and the fact they changed coach midway through the campaign.

Racing 92's Dan Carter. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Racing 92's Dan Carter. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

However, Munster's senior players don't want to settle for semi-finals and Peter O'Mahony expressed his frustration on Sunday when he said he was sick and tired of losing at this stage of the competition.

Keatley gave everything and certainly shouldn't shoulder all of the blame for Sunday.

Johann van Graan took ownership for their failure to start the game well but defended his decision to omit Simon Zebo and Rhys Marshall from the team, while there were plenty of players who would hold their hands up and say they had off days.

But there were moments when Munster needed accuracy and control from their No 10 and he was found wanting.

Loose kicks from hand cost field position and invited Racing to counter-attack, a lack of direction in attack and an inability to realise that there was space on the edges of the French side's attack all counted against the men in red.

The panicked drop-goal attempt moments after turning down points midway through the first half smacked of a team lacking clarity, which was in direct contrast to the performances of Leinster and Racing whose unity of purpose was embodied by Sexton and Lambie.

Others missed tackles and failed to support isolated runners resulting in crucial turnovers, while Keatley rescued a struggling lineout with his own bravery on occasion, but the direction needed from out-half was lacking and it was no surprise that he was hauled ashore after 53 minutes.

Until Sunday, this season had been a redemption tale for a player who almost left the club last season after losing his place to Tyler Bleyendaal but instead won hearts and minds with a series of strong performances.

Sunday was a step too far.

Most of Munster's issues rest on the bad luck incurred since they signed Bleyendaal as their long-term solution in 2014.

Three of the New Zealander's four seasons since arriving in Ireland have been wrecked by injury and there are concerns about his capacity to return from a second neck operation.

Highly rated before arriving and involved in Ireland camps before the beginning of the season, the 27-year-old hasn't been able to have the desired impact, and even when he was fit for last year's semi-final loss to Saracens he played poorly.

The return of Hanrahan looked set to put Keatley further down the pecking order, but the Kerryman's progress has stalled since joining Northampton Saints and while he improved things off the bench on Sunday, he hasn't earned the trust of Van Graan.

Still just 25, Hanrahan looks the better long-term bet within the squad but one after the other coaches have been reluctant to back him as the starting No 10 and his belief levels appear to have dropped as a result.

The highly-rated Bill Johnston remains in the 'one for the future' category, while impatient fans will demand a foreign signing, but in a market where All Black reserve out-halves Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Cruden and Colin Slade are earning more than €500,000 a year the Irish province are priced out of the market.

That's presuming they could even enter the arena. If sought, it is likely that the IRFU would deny them permission with Connacht recruiting South African David Horwitz and Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne's lack of interest in moving north forcing Ulster to look abroad for Paddy Jackson's replacement.

Munster will be monitoring the Carbery and Byrne situation closely and will feel they may feel they can turn their heads as a club who regularly compete at the business end and have a respected young coaching ticket.

Ian Madigan is another who would be of interest, but he is on a lucrative long-term deal at Bristol.

The increase of the residency period from three to five years likely rules out a 'project' signing.

Five seasons have passed and four head coaches have been in charge since Ronan O'Gara retired after the semi-final loss to Clermont in Montpellier and still replacing the legend remains one of their greatest headaches and perhaps Van Graan's greatest challenge.

Irish Independent

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