Sunday 17 December 2017

Munster write-offs on road again

Northampton 36 Munster 51


You have got to ask yourself how much traction Munster actually get out of being written off.

There is no question that the provocation from the notion that they didn't deserve five from five had some bearing, but its in the DNA and when it comes to a reduction to the fundamentals they produce. I did not think that they would quite produce the performance they did yesterday, which is not far away from the one they produced against Perpignan a few seasons ago, but the desire is authentic and what Munster have is genetically modified. They all know how much it means and they stand up and trot out performances and results like the one they produced yesterday.

It is so much more than the breadth of Ronan O'Gara's knowledge and Paul O'Connell's exemplar personality -- a lethal cocktail over the last decade.

The first half was interesting in the sense that Munster created nothing yet they came to half-time at 19-all. They lack the inventive intelligence of Toulouse or Leinster. They saved their wit or dazzle for the second half when the game began to open up, so for the first half it was down to exploiting weakness and taking advantage of mistakes that Northampton made. And there were plenty of them, some of them the result of pressure applied, some of them unforced errors from a team who had been scowling and smarting since their defeat in Thomond back in November.

If you are going to mention the 'R' word you have got to back it up with a perfect performance. Northampton had strengths which were obvious even from the previous three encounters in the last year or so and that showed all the way through the match where they garnered two penalty tries from scrum dominance.

The Heineken Cup tells us that a scrum is a prerequisite for getting through to the knockout stages but it doesn't win you games, and Northampton should have attended to some house-keeping matters in their general play and particularly at kick-off time. They coughed up the ball six times from kick-off receptions. Admittedly O'Gara's kicks were pitch perfect -- length correct and varied perfectly to make Northampton guess where the next one was coming from.

As a consequence, Northampton could never enjoy their lead and they gave the ball and field position back to Munster. The game was finely poised all the way to the 71st minute and Simon Zebo's intercept try but the quintessential element -- desire -- began to drain out of Northampton's faces as they began to make mistakes.

It says so much again about the quality of Aviva Premiership sides and their ability to apply pressure, and more importantly their ability to react to pressure.

There is no better side in the competition who can deal with pressure and deal it out and in the second half that is exactly what they did. Another supreme kick-off. The normally reliable Phil Dowson took his eye off the ball, Zebo, who looked razor sharp all night, lashed on to the ball like an exocet and eventually Johne Murphy was put over on the right.

Maybe the term championship minutes is overdone but it tells you much about sides and how they approach the start of the game for the second period, Northampton trying to ease their way back in, Munster taking the direct route and that is the difference.

The early score was compounded by a mistake by Ryan Lamb. As he has done over the course of his career he has demonstrated that he is a resolute defeatist and just when his pack needed to get back into the game he kicked the ball directly to touch.

Minutes later with Munster sensing blood they scored the best try of the day as Northampton's defensive line began to yield. O'Gara went left from multi-phase and Keith Earls, who looked uneasy earlier on, flowed into the pass. Denis Hurley too held his line and ran straight and his flat pass to Zebo might have been an inch forward as he came on to it at such pace. It should have been the coup de grace.

Northampton's scrum got them back into it but at that stage of the game that was all they had and deductive reasoning told you that Munster, as they always do, would ramp it up in the last 20 and strangle the last bit of fizzle out of Northampton.

You would wonder why Munster would look for James Downey after such an anonymous performance and they looked utterly predictable as the big centre held it up for Lamb to wrap it around him. Zebo had a couple of minutes to see the play coming and was almost embarrassed to take the present that was offered to him.

That was the game and the wound had salt thrown into it with his third of the day. That young man is maturing nicely.

We await some more surprises as there has been all weekend in this fantastic competition. Munster will not be travelling anytime soon and this competition has a distinctly Irish feel to it.

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