Friday 19 January 2018

Neil Francis: Munster's Stade win only magnified the Paris debacle

16 January 2016; Munster's Simon Zebo celebrates with team-mates after scoring his side's third try. European Rugby Champions Cup, Pool 4, Round 5, Munster v Stade Francais. Thomond Park, Limerick. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
16 January 2016; Munster's Simon Zebo celebrates with team-mates after scoring his side's third try. European Rugby Champions Cup, Pool 4, Round 5, Munster v Stade Francais. Thomond Park, Limerick. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Ulster’s Rory Scholes is tackled by Michael Rhodes during their Pool 1 clash yesterday. Photo: Seb Daly
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Well, what would Pyrrhus think? They use the term 'dead cat bounce' in the stock market to describe a modest short-term recovery. Even a dead cat, you see, will bounce a little.

Munster's performance yesterday was reassuringly more than that, but we're not certain that this Alamo-type performance will continue. In the echo chamber there will be sound bites like 'pride restored in Munster jersey' and 'revenge' but if Munster are serious about themselves, and nobody can be certain whether this is a platform victory or not, they will have to target their next six Pro12 games that are scheduled to take place within the international window - Ospreys and Dragons at home and Glasgow, Zebre, Treviso and Cardiff away. To my mind nothing less than 20 points will suffice in terms of ensuring that Munster recover themselves.

Munster are currently standing fifth in the Pro12 with Ulster, Ospreys and Glasgow looming. At this stage they are not good enough to get into the top four and they cannot under any circumstances afford an unexpected slip-up against some of the easier sides they will face.

Even the notion of trying to get an easier pool group for next year's Turkish Airlines Champions Cup is of no consolation because right now any of the stronger teams will look at Munster and fancy their chances.

Looking at the bottom line of Munster's traditional DNA, which is practised competence at the basics, there was a small resurrection in commitment and organisation in the tackle. Who do we ascribe this to? Andy Farrell's two-day involvement? The embarrassment factor from the performance in Paris? Or is it just the sense that Munster couldn't let themselves down as badly again in front of their home crowd?

Whenever I look at the Premier League and I see the rubbish on view I often ask myself is that a £300,000 first touch? The inability to even make a pass under no pressure directly and accurately to a supporting player no more than 15 metres away is astounding. How do these professional athletes command such remuneration? So too Munster's 27 missed tackles in Paris when most of the players that afternoon would be earning six-figure salaries. It's difficult to make comparisons between Premier League players and Pro12 players but in rugby union the jersey counts for something and certainly if you are being paid that amount of money that counts for something too.

That little corridor, that little gap between merely effecting your tackles and flooring somebody is a mental process. There are trimmings of desire and determination thrown in but it has to be said, there was disinterest and apathy too, which makes yesterday's performance all the more artificial because yesterday they were under pain of death to not repeat that type of defensive performance. Their efficiency levels were up, they got 90 per cent of their tackles, missing only 10.

So how do we explain what happened in Paris? This squad realises that it doesn't have enough quality and enough depth of quality. Yet in the golden years in matches where they faced teams of superior quality on paper that should have squeezed them to death, the supposedly out-matched men in red did not succumb to the pressure that was applied to them. They made their tackles and they pressed and they never gave up.

That is what this current team is guilty of - they gave up, which is unforgivable when you wear a red jersey. The performance yesterday only magnifies what happened in Paris. They performed when they felt they had to.

Of the squad of 23 yesterday, half of the side are not good enough to play at European Cup level. The question has to be asked, even of the younger players, will they be ready for that level in three or four years after development and experience has expanded their playing paradigm? The test for Munster will be to make progress in the Pro12 without the likes of Earls, Zebo, Ryan, Murray and possibly Stander.

Yesterday Ian Keatley did ok but at 28 how much better will he get to lead Munster? Ireland's two outstanding out-halves of recent vintage, Ronan O'Gara and David Humphreys, made all their mistakes in their early 20s. By the time they reached 28 they were replete and fully exercised in controlling a game for their province or country.

What Munster did yesterday may help Ulster next week. I suspect that Richard Cockerill, after sending a bouquet of flowers to the Munster dressing room, will finish the job and garner a home quarter-final by beating Stade Francais in Paris. Qualification will not be enough for this ambitious Leicester side. Ulster may just benefit.

Although they were a long way short on quality yesterday against a really good Saracens side, Ulster will have to bonus-point Oyonnax on Friday, but even that might not be enough, depending on how matches go today.

The Ulstermen were badly beaten up front and even if they had Iain Henderson, Dan Tuohy, Chris Henry and Nick Williams on board, I'm not sure if the result would have been any different. Ulster were marvellously competitive for periods of the game but you could see the sap being drawn out of their soul as Saracens played a direct game and eventually found the holes they needed. It is only when Saracens get an unbridgeable gap that they start playing the sort of game which inspires. With about 25 minutes to go their offloading game and their high-powered bench really stuck it to Ulster.

I think Les Kiss may do just enough to get them into the shake-up, but being first out on Friday night doesn't help their cause. It is dispiriting to see Neil Doak moved further down the line just as it is to see Foley coming under increasing even as we speak. I look at Mark McCall who has done a fantastic job - admittedly with greater financial resources - and wonder what is going through his head. Saracens have a genuine chance to win this cup at the end of this season if they continue to play as they have.

I could not imagine McCall even thinking about coming back to Ireland to coach, nor could I envisage Conor O'Shea coming back to Ireland under any circumstances. Why should they?

Ulster have a very talented back line but they had no ball to play with yesterday and Saracens' line speed seriously discommoded them.

It will be interesting to see how many of them start for Ireland against Wales in a few weeks' time. Wales, too, play the blitz. There is enough quality there for at least three of them to get in. Jared Payne played well but Paddy Jackson took a step back. He is still a young man and the graph is only going one way and I suspect he will get ahead of Ian Madigan on the bench on the back of his performances over the last few weeks, but not in ahead of Johnny Sexton under any circumstances.

The suspicion persists that Ireland and Irish players are at the bottom of a cycle. They look empty, lacking in sharpness and amazingly English and French sides seem to be fitter. With the Six Nations around the corner it's hard to see a quick fix to this.

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