Monday 18 December 2017

George Hook: Munster get ugly glimpse into life without O'Gara

George Hook

George Hook

Munster suffered a humiliating defeat to Racing Metro in Paris. They were beaten by a team that have pretty much pointed their coaches towards the exit door, were short 12 players and had won just once in their Heineken Cup history.

There was also a clear indication of the nightmare scenario that faces the province when Ronan O'Gara retires. Worse still, the team now appears to be ill-served in the vital axis of 8-9-10.

The match was appallingly refereed by Greg Garner (2 out of 10). He displayed poor awareness of what was happening in the scrum, missing an early engagement by Munster at the first scrum and a slip by Luc Ducalcon on the second.

He presented Munster with the chance of a penalty try, which they botched with poor control at the base by Peter O'Mahony (6/10). The neophyte international is a good forward, but a No 8 he is not.

Seasoned scrum-watchers in Ireland looked askance at this seeming power in the Reds' set-piece, but normal service was resumed and the match duly ended with the ritual humiliation of losing their own put-in when the team had one last chance of a miracle win.

Once upon a time, Irish teams prayed for rain. Now a dry day is preferable, not because the skills are better but because the scrum is a liability.

Munster dominated the opening quarter and O'Gara (7/10) drove his team forward with an array of kicks and chips that ensured territorial advantage.

O'Gara (right) did slip up with a pass that led to the try by Maxime Machenaud in the first half. It might have been a minor blip had the problem not been compounded by the departure of the Munster legend. Full-back Ian Keatley (3/10) moved to No 10 and the game slipped from Munster's grasp.

The conditions demanded a territorial game and Keatley was ill-equipped for the task. In his entire time as the pivot not one chip, punt or restart put an opponent under pressure nor did his team manage to regain the ball.

He picked out Olly Barkley with unerring accuracy and the Englishman drove Munster back yards at every opportunity. Worse still was his tactical control. If not kicked, the ball was shovelled across the backline in a pale imitation of the Rob Penney plan.

New Zealand is not unaccustomed to rain and yet the coach seemed incapable of communicating a different game plan to his team.

Penney has led a charmed life since his arrival and the adoring press corps that love a foreign accent greeted his idea of forwards on the wing with an awe previously associated with the two tablets of stone presented by Moses on Mount Sinai.

Marcus Horan must have had a wry smile when he remembered his try count as an auxiliary wing.

If Penney wants to play a quick game then he needs to find a scrum-half that can deliver the ball swiftly to his outsides. Conor Murray (3/10) has gone backwards since the World Cup and this was the nadir of his career to date.

His passing was laboured and a step or two before delivery seemed mandatory. Peter Stringer was left to watch from the bench when his passing skills were urgently required. However, Murray's playing performance was worse. A better referee would have had him off the field twice with a yellow card for professional fouls.

With the match on a knife-edge the scrum-half deliberately took out a French player and then lost the match for his team with an inexcusable display inside his own '22'. The player is either over-confident or foolish. Hopefully, it is the former because the latter is incurable.

Without a half-back combination, Munster were doomed but stayed in the game because Doug Howlett (7/10) and the majestic Simon Zebo (9/10) kept their heads when all around them were losing theirs.

Howlett's quick thinking at the line-out and Zebo's pace put Munster in front and in sight of an unlikely victory before Murray's indiscretions. Zebo was magnificent in every facet of the game and at times seemed to be Munster's only kicking, catching and running option.

With the scrum crumbling, the visitors needed a sound line-out. Sadly, Damien Varley (5/10) was unable to deliver the throws and his team lost a huge amount of ball. Varley insisted on throwing hard and long while Dimitri Szarzewski threw a softer lob which made more sense in the conditions.


Yet again the coach's substitution policy had to be questioned with the dynamic Mike Sherry available. Albeit in a shorter time on the pitch, Sherry did not miss a throw.

With O'Gara unlikely to start next week against the hapless Edinburgh, the coach cannot go into the match with the half-backs that finished this game. He has no alternative at fly-half, but Stringer must return at No 9.

Interestingly, the diminutive veteran was considered surplus to requirements last year.

If Penney has any hope of reaching the knockout stages, he must hope for a fit O'Gara. Indeed, Ireland and Munster need to extend his contract as, based on the opening round of the competition, there is only one alternative to Jonny Sexton. The same deal might be offered to Stringer.

The IRFU, after years of technical officers and elite performance coaches, are now in a situation where the country has only one scrum-half that can pass and two props that can scrummage.

Heading to the Aviva in November, February and May does not look like an inviting prospect on this evidence.

Irish Independent

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