Wednesday 23 January 2019

Neil Francis: 'Munster will win nothing without Joey Carbery for big games'

Last weekend's 30-5 defeat of Castres looks impressive but it hides a multitude

Key man: Johann Van Graan has a world class out-half at his disposal in Joey Carbery. Photo: Sportsfile
Key man: Johann Van Graan has a world class out-half at his disposal in Joey Carbery. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

About 10 years ago after a comprehensive victory over Italy in the Stadio Flaminio, I ended up in the Stadio Olimpico the following day for my first taste of Serie A. I watched two games that day - my first and my last. Never again.

Atalanta and Lazio played out a 0-0 draw that afternoon in a display that was a send-up of professional sport.

The term 'travesty' lacks the depth and meaning required to adequately describe what unfolded on the pitch that afternoon.

At least Lot's wife had a merciful escape when the Lord turned her into a pillar of salt after looking back at the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The thing that struck me was that there was no sense of embarrassment or shame. Two shots on target in the entire game and the boys were high- hand clapping to the crowd after it was all over.

I sent an invoice to Lazio for the lost 93 minutes but 3,650 days later there is no sign of a refund. The only consolation was that I had to watch the match only once.

Heartless

The Munster v Castres game was so bad last Sunday that even the most heartless editor wouldn't make me watch it again, but there was so much wrong in the game that it's a necessary requirement of the job to review the horror once again. There will be an invoice sent to the Munster Branch.

It is true that the weather conditions were awful for all the teams partaking in European competition last weekend. Some of them though played some very decent rugby - some didn't!

Before we go any further, I would like to register a protest against Racing Metro and the unfair advantage they have with their enclosed stadium in La Defense.

This is winter and foul weather conditions prevail at this time of the season. Teams that have realistic aspirations of winning the tournament or getting to the knockout stages will always try and target a bonus-point win at home, particularly when they are playing weaker sides.

Racing picked up bonus points against Ulster and Leicester because they were unhindered by driving wind and rain. They can play football while other quality teams exposed to the elements are at a severe disadvantage.

Racing picked up two handy bonus points which they would not have done if they had been playing at, for instance, the Rec last Saturday. Maybe that's something for the ERC to look at.

Munster had it within their compass to extract a try bonus point against a Castres side so lacking in ambition it defied belief but they could not point at the weather conditions as an excuse.

The conditions were not good but I have seen Munster play like a team on fire in far worse conditions and come away with the bonus point.

Maybe next Saturday they will turn it all around and pitch in with an all-purpose, mistake-free, easy breezy performance - but I'm not so sure.

If we examine some of the macro issues affecting Munster, some of the revelations are pretty stark.

If you look at the team that was selected to play last Sunday, 14 of the 23 were not from Munster. There were four South Africans, three Englishmen, two Kiwis, three Blackrock College alumni, one Clongownian and one Ulster man. If John Kleyn had been fit, that would have been 15 non-Munster men playing for Munster in a first-choice selection. Five South Africans!

That is an unhealthy situation, if you ask me. You might say that once they give their all for the Munster jersey what more can you ask for?

Well, more indigenous Munster players coming through to claim a place on the senior side would be a start. You have reached a tipping point where a majority of the Munster team are actually not from Munster.

You can buy into it and you can pump the crest emblazoned on your chest but there is a significant and perceptible dilution going on here.

When Mo Salah lines up in the Merseyside derby, he is probably thinking, 'What's all the fuss about? These fellas from Everton aren't too bad at all'.

Most of the buy-ins have been good moves, but you can't say that Munster bought smart like they did 10 or 15 years ago with your Langfords or Jim Williams because all of Munster's new players have been allocated by the Joe Schmidt/David Nucifora axis.

Joey Carbery, Chris Farrell, Tadhg Beirne and Mike Haley, all quality players, were sent there by a higher force. Munster have no autonomy and little say in the matter.

There is no doubt, though, that they now have a squad of players who are nearly all of Champions Cup standard. The issue might be when one or two of the 23 gets injured. Munster need luck on the injury front.

JJ Hanrahan was named man of the match and he did a decent job coming in to the team late but this is the problem that Munster have with injuries. They have five out-halves in their senior squad - four Pro14 standard players and one superstar.

When Carbery got injured, Munster couldn't countenance picking Ian Keatley again even though he has had far more good days than bad in a Munster jersey. Tyler Bleyendaal just didn't have enough game-time under his belt and Bill Johnston is a long way from being a Champions Cup-standard player just yet. And so Hanrahan started. In fairness, Munster scored three good tries. Hanrahan bagged one of them and picked up 20 points. To the naked eye, he had a tidy game.

The difference, though, between merely wearing the number 10 jersey and effectively controlling the match is what has dogged Hanrahan's career to date. Flashes of this, a touch here and a touch there but he never controls the game for Munster.

Conor Murray is the principal strategic kicker in the side and he kicked three times more than Hanrahan did.

Hanrahan's kicking was a mixture of the good and the bad and that is always the case. For his short time in red, Carbery gets to kick an awful lot more when he plays, but his kicking is executed with real conviction and that is the difference.

Last Sunday, Hanrahan stood on the pivot slot and just shipped ball on all day, never really getting his back-line going with real menace, never launching his forwards and only once getting someone (Andrew Conway) through on a delayed trail line.

There is a reason why Hanrahan spends a lot of his playing minutes in the centre or at full-back. He can't control the game for Munster consistently or effectively. If Carbery is injured for any of their big games, Munster will be in trouble.

If Carbery had been playing last Sunday, Munster would have got their bonus point and would have dispatched Castres and given them no thought for hope on Saturday.

Farrell, too, would have made a huge difference. He won't be playing on Saturday and that is bad news, which will be compounded if Carbery is out also.

Multitude

Personnel aside, it is hard to legislate with just how badly Munster played. A 30-5 scoreline hides a multitude.

If they repeat the handling errors and are as casual with the ball as they were last week, they could easily get turned over by a Castres side that are far trickier than they looked. Whatever happens, you are guaranteed that Castres will give a significant jump in performance levels and efficiency at the Stade Pierre-Fabre.

Johann van Graan must stand accountable for that very odd performance last Sunday. Munster are going well in the Pro14 and lead their group but have Castres and Gloucester away and if they do not produce the sort of Munster away performances that we expect from the men in red, then their dominance in this group could unravel very quickly.

Irish Independent

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