Saturday 20 January 2018

Penney plots swift recovery on 'rocky road'

Racing Metro 22 Munster 17

David Kelly at the Stade de France

More growing pains for Rob Penney's Munster mission.

Never a team to cock a snoop at a losing bonus point in France, this is still one that will surely stick in the gut. The two-time champions won this game twice, then conspired to lose it twice.

Conor Murray's glaring late error will be cited, but his indecision was indicative of a day when so much of his side's performance was rocked by uncertainty as to which style the team should adopt.

Inexperience -- despite four Heineken Cup debutants and a worryingly makeshift back-row who struggled all day against Metro's brutish pack -- should not be deployed in mitigation.

"There's a lot to be learned, but a few of these boys beat Australia in similar conditions a few years ago," said Paul O'Connell, in reference to the grim November night in Limerick two years ago when eight of Saturday's squad downed the Wallabies.

"In fairness, if they had closed out the game after Simon Zebo's try we'd be fairly happy with them. But there's a big learning curve from the last 10 minutes.

"We needed to batten down the hatches there. You saw once we scored our try, they had to play the rugby.

"You know if we kept them down there and made them play like we had to do at times, then there probably were penalties there for us, but we didn't do that and it's a lesson learned."

After Saracens' demolition job on last season's semi-finalists Edinburgh, the muscles will be in Brussels next week seeking to complete what Munster could not against Racing.

Next Sunday, at Thomond Park, Munster need to win against Edinburgh and then secure back-to-back wins against the English side; four wins may see them through but allowing Racing to retain interest in the fare has skewed the pitch a tad.

As learning curves go, this was a particularly excruciating one for Penney's men who began the game with a flourish, showing sufficient power and composure to intimate that the diffident hosts might pack their tents by half-time.

When Munster released the pressure valve, Racing re-emerged as an interested party in the fixture -- had O'Connell not dropped the ball with the line gaping, his side could have been 17-3 ahead by the 25th minute.

Then, as the heavens opened once more, a confluence of events acted like a domino effect to turn the game entirely on its head -- a harsh scrum penalty, a horrible midfield mix-up, and then a hamstring injury to Ronan O'Gara.

Racing sensed a sniff, their defensive line speed improved and capitalised on some indifferent Munster passing. As their half-backs began to dominate the kicking game, the chasing improved too.

Olly Barkley, dropped into Paris barely a wet week, was arguably Man of the Match as he did more than a passable imitation of how a team should play in such horrendous conditions.

They prevented Munster scoring for virtually an hour, but when Zebo pounced for his wonderful solo try with eight minutes left, it seemed as if their resuscitative efforts were all in vain.

Yet again, they weren't planning on being tossed another lifeline by a side normally known for their ravenous ruthlessness. O'Gara's presence, had he not had to hobble off, may have altered the chaotic final pages of the script.

"To be honest, I thought they were playing out of their own third more than we thought they would the last 10 minutes," reasoned the former England international Barkley.

"I didn't think they would play as much as they did in their first 40, which perhaps allowed us back into it a little more than if they had kicked a bit more, in all honesty."


His assessment was as accurate as his kicking game, save for one easy penalty miss that could have denied Munster the bonus point.

Munster's vacillation between using the feet or the hands contributed to the steady slippage of the supreme control they had initially exerted on proceedings.

Uncertain as to the quality of their back-row, and also strangely reluctant to deploy James Downey as much as they had done in previous weeks, Munster fell between two stools for much of the afternoon. "It's unbelievable that we would not kick at times when it's on to kick," added Penney. "We've just got to be better."

"Maybe we could have done a little bit more of that," mused O'Connell of the need to play a more traditionally territorial, suffocating game.

"But then, if we did a little bit more of that then maybe Simon Zebo wouldn't have scored his try the way he did. We'll have a look at it, I still think we did enough, we put ourselves in a position to win it, it's just a shame we didn't close it out."

With Edinburgh also reeling, next week becomes a must-win match, never mind the ominous sight of a Saracens side gathering impressive momentum ahead of rounds three and four in December.

"It's a very tough position now," admitted O'Connell, who emerged from his first outing since May unscathed. "I suppose that result from Sarries today puts us in a really, really tough position and makes them favourites for the group.

"Look, we've been here before where we've lost our first game, it kind of becomes a cup final mentality from here and clarifies the mind.

"So we've just got to focus on getting a big win next week and we'll worry about December when it comes along, but we've got to focus on next week."

That has always been the Munster way; for that to remain so, clarity of purpose will be required for a side who, after allowing Racing Metro to squirm off the hook, have now little, if any, wriggle room of their own. "This isn't the Munster of old," warned Penney. "This is a new Munster group. And they're doing the Munster jersey a great service. They're going to try to build their own legacy over time. There'll be rocky roads, as I've said many times. This is another bump in that rocky road."

Racing Metro -- B Fall (V Vakatawa 67); J Jane; M Bergamasco, JM Hernandez, J Saubade; O Barkley, M Machenaud; A Lo Cicero (E Ben Arous 67), D Szarzewski (T Bianchin 70), L Ducalcon (B Sa 56), K Ghezal, F Van der Merwe (F Metz 61), A Battut (C Gerondeau 76), M Matadigo (Le Roux 61), J Cronje.

Munster -- I Keatley; D Howlett (capt), C Laulala, J Downey (D Barnes 76), S Zebo; R O'Gara (D Hurley 34), C Murray; D Kilcoyne (M Horan 74), D Varley (M Sherry 55), BJ Botha; B Holland, P O'Connell (D O'Callaghan 64); D Ryan, S Dougall (P Butler 75), P O'Mahony.

Ref -- G Garner (RFU).

Irish Independent

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