Monday 20 November 2017

McGahan: We must up gears for Saints

David Kelly

David Kelly

You can't always get what you want from sport. Sometimes you must make do with what you need.

As the old Stones tune that played out in the small hours of a cool Limerick Saturday night faded, the merits or otherwise of this scratchy afternoon's work were still being hotly debated by Munster supporters.

Clearly, the anguish so strongly felt following last year's failure to reach the knockout stages still runs deep.

How else to explain such widespread misgivings, despite Munster becoming the first team to reach the knockout stages, and notably for the first time in their distinguished qualification history as an unbeaten side?

Viewed through the prism of their injury woes and last season's potentially defining setback, this year's achievement is surely deserving of more acclamation.

That they achieved their progress in the same shambling manner that has attached itself to their previous pool efforts underlines the feeling of shifty unease amongst some of their support base.

Despite a set-piece that remains radically more secure than that which contributed to last season's demise, much of their play is devoid of polish, whether in some shambolic backline finishing or the often appalling efforts at ruck protection.

It is normally a sign of confidence that a team can patrol through third gear and still win pulling up. That Munster may not seem capable of moving beyond that remains the palpable worry, as a defeat to improving Northampton Saints in Milton Keynes next Saturday may undo all the positive results.

Few would fancy coming to Thomond Park, but few would reckon on Munster beating the odds on the road in a quarter-final.

"That's the frustration for everyone -- fans, coaches, supporters," acknowledged head coach Tony McGahan, whose position has been secured, with a stronger possibility now that he may be offered another year at the helm as Munster prepare to ease Anthony Foley into a position of greater responsibility.

"We know that's there and we just need to finish it off. Nobody's harder on the group than the group itself. They know they have things to work on. It wasn't a jubilant dressing-room afterwards.

"We recognise the challenge that awaits in Northampton next week. They're looking for revenge. We need to make sure we step up a few gears."

After struggling to deal with a transitional period that they hadn't sufficiently planned for during last season's failed qualification tilt, McGahan's task has arguably been rendered even more difficult this season by a host of injuries and retirements.

Hence, for all the angst about the paltry scoring returns from a surfeit of effort, theirs remains an effort worthy of praise. Typically, they will want more.

"Even if we were at full strength it would have been a massive struggle to get through this season," he said. "Certainly we'd like to be hitting the mark every time in terms of what we're trying to do but that's not from a lack of effort or application.

"If you look at the context of the competition as a whole and where we are in terms of heading in to Round Six, we need to give the players a massive amount of credit for the way they've carried themselves and put themselves into a position where they're looking for a home quarter-final."

No doubts ever surrounded Saturday's result, just Munster's performance. They started brightly, making several bursts close in, and James Coughlan butchered a three-on-one before Johne Murphy sailed home after a neat line-out trick.

Strangely, they then departed from script and played wider, despite having breached holes close in and, as they began to cough up ball regularly, what might have otherwise been diffident opposition were almost enthusiastically invited into the contest.

Shocking defending allowed Castres to hit back with a try of their own and at 16-10 in the 43rd minute, after Pierre Bernard nabbed a trademark half-way line three-pointer, punters were shifting anxiously in their seats.

Munster's midfield was having a nightmare -- on this evidence, Keith Earls will not be Declan Kidney's outside-centre preference for the opening Six Nations game against Wales.

Just as they have done all season, the lesser names inspired, chiefly Donnacha Ryan, finally flourishing and banging down the door for a Six Nations berth himself, switching to the flank impressively after Niall Ronan's cruel early injury.

Wian du Preez sealed the result by the 68th minute, but whereas that belated second try should have presented the platform for a bonus-point surge, it seemed to represent more accurately the summit of this side's fitful efforts at cohesion.

"People are a little over-eager at times," acknowledged Paul O'Connell. "We created a lot and didn't finish it off. Hopefully we can improve. You'd rather be creating and not finishing than not creating.

"I'm not saying it was brilliant, but we created a little bit. Guys are showing form which is good. Our basics were very good tonight and they're good foundations to play from."

And he recognised the efforts of the less-established players, singling out such as Ryan, the outstanding Peter O'Mahony and the strong-running Denis Hurley.

"You've a lot of guys delivering performances this season," he added. "And that's probably something we didn't have last season. Guys are having millers of games. We had a few like that tonight and we've had it all year."

Reminding his supporters that Munster were "not proud" of what happened last year, Coughlan was keen to look forward, conscious of the enormity of next week's challenge against an English side seeking revenge for that extraordinary Round One defeat.

"Saints won't lie down and they want to stay in the Amlin. They're no mugs. They'll be looking forward to this one," he said. "Home quarter-finals are special days here and we missed out on that last year. It's a massive thing for the club financially and it's a huge incentive for us to push on."

It's a position they would have craved at the beginning of the competition, regardless of how the numbers have been crunched. Next week will indicate whether substance can trump style.

"It's much better having qualified before going to Northampton," smiled McGahan. "We recognise the challenge and where they are. We want to get a result, though, not just scrape through with a bonus point."

The team with the greater need are likely to win the day.

Munster -- D Hurley; J Murphy, K Earls, L Mafi (D Barnes 78), S Zebo; R O'Gara (I Keatley 74), C Murray (T O'Leary 66); W Du Preez (M Horan 73), D Varley (D Fogarty 73), BJ Botha (S Archer 74); D Ryan, P O'Connell (capt); P O'Mahony (B Holland 78), N Ronan (D O'Callaghan 14), J Coughlan.

Castres -- R Martial; V Inigo (M Nicolas 74), P Bonnefond, PM Garcia, PG Lakafia; P Bernard, T Lacrampe (yc 55-65); S Taumoepeau (M Coetzee 55), MA Ralier (M Bonello 66), A Peikrishvili (K Wihongi 55); M Rolland (capt), R Capo Ortega; Y Caballero, I Diarra, J Bornman.

Ref -- A Small (England).

Irish Independent

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