Flawed Reds give Penney food for thought
IT'S often opined that teams learn more from a defeat than a win, but on Saturday night Munster's victory over Ulster threw up even more questions about the victors – and not just concerning Paul O'Connell's future.
For Ulster, it was, presumably, a surprise that they found themselves still enjoying parity (3-3) until the 33rd minute when Alain Rolland awarded Munster's scrum a penalty try – their second in consecutive matches.
Mark Anscombe had travelled to the Limerick venue with a callow, fresh-faced squad, devoid of the majority of front-liners and glaringly absent of seasoned internationals, Irish or otherwise. This was clearly a game the Ulster coach was willing to sacrifice in favour of bigger tests down the road.
That Munster found it so difficult to gain a meaningful advantage was a surprise and certainly resulted in some head-scratching on Saturday night and probably will again during this morning's video review.
"Today was like the best of us and the worst of us tied up in one match," said Rob Penney.
How right he was. Munster had more possession than Ulster, had better territorial gains, won more rucks, more line-outs, more scrums and still spent long periods of the game running the ball diagonally and making absolutely no yardage gains.
That their three tries came from players (and a scrum) finally running straight lines and exploiting gaps in the Ulster defence should not be overlooked, which raises the main questions about Munster's performance.
Did their tries from Simon Zebo and Peter O'Mahony come about because Munster stretched the Ulster defence by going first left, then right thereby distending their line?
Or were the tries the result of Munster players varying their play and adopting a more direct approach because of eventual frustration at the lack of gains going wide?
Penney was absolutely certain it was the former – "the reason Zebo's try came about is because we had gone to width four times previous which opens up the space in the middle" – but doubts remain about Munster's ability to execute the expansive game to absolute effect.
Allowing for the fact that in the build-up to Zebo's try Munster did go from touchline to touchline, the decisive gains came when Paddy Butler, Tommy O'Donnell, Casey Laulala, Denis Hurley and Damien Varley all took the ball into contact and forced defenders to commit in the build-up to the try.
Once that happened the gaps appeared and Zebo took advantage. That said, there is merit in Penney's assertion that gaps like that exploited by Zebo do occur when the opposition team is stretched and mismatches are forced between forwards defending and backs attacking.
What is the right approach though? When Munster were simply slavishly passing the ball wide there was very little go-forward momentum. They were passing too deep and running too diagonally. When they went direct, they scored.
It's like the old chestnut, 'which came first, the chicken or the egg?', but whatever the answer Munster need to figure it out with their season-defining Heineken Cup games looming.
Munster struggled for long periods to put away a much weakened Ulster side on Saturday, which doesn't bode well for their must-win two remaining Heineken Cup games. One of those games will also need to be won with a four-try bonus-point performance.
Ulster, in contrast, will be relatively pleased with their evening's work. Their younger players like props Callum Black and Adam Macklin will be all the better for having come through the experience and for a long time they were Munster's equals.
Indeed, with less possession and less territory they still looked impressive at times while Luke Marshall, in an understrength and under-pressure team, showed again why he is so highly regarded at interprovincial and national level.
He was Ulster's most effective starter with ball in hand and was one of their two most effective tacklers. "Luke has been saying with his performances – and he was pretty good today – that he wants more, which is great. Paddy Wallace has been playing great this year. Luke is rattling the cage though," said Anscombe.
"I also thought some of the younger lads played really well and were really up with Munster until that penalty try. This is a game they will learn from and it was great that they stuck with it right until the end and scored the final try."
Munster will be relatively happy with the final result – "had you offered it to us before the game we'd have grudgingly taken it," said Penney – but it was achieved with a flawed performance. Doug Howlett, for example, barely featured.
If they are to win matches and progress their season then surely they must devise a way for one of the best finishers in the European game to be more involved. When his channel is being overpopulated by forwards loitering – with intent or otherwise – it denies him the room to really open up his legs.
Munster are producing fleeting moments of excellence but they are being overshadowed by long periods of tedious over-elaboration where there is a lot of movement that might look good but is largely ineffective.
On Saturday, they had 31 minutes in which to secure a bonus point but never truly threatened the Ulster try-line. For a side who will need to score four tries against Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup in a fortnight's time that is a big worry, even if Penney doesn't believe so.
"The lads have shown what they can do at Heineken Cup level. It's not a concern. But I'd like to think by now we are a little bit more ruthless when we have our foot on the throat.
"The little bit of frustration comes from the fact that we are not doing that more often when we are working hard at creating those opportunities but just not seeing the pictures and not executing well enough."
Munster – D Hurley; D Howlett (capt) (F Jones 65), C Laulala, J Downey (R O'Gara 51), S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray (P Stringer 68); W du Preez (M Horan 63), D Varley, BJ Botha (S Archer 51); Donncha O'Callaghan, B Holland; P O'Mahony (J Coughlan 64), T O'Donnell (Dave O'Callaghan 70), P Butler.
Ulster – A D'Arcy; C Cochrane, M Allen, L Marshall, C Gilroy (R Andrew 70); N O'Connor (S Olding 60), P Marshall (M Heaney 66); C Black (T Court 58), R Herring (N Annett 58), A Macklin (R Lutton 65); L Stevenson, N McComb; R Diack, M McComish (A Birch 58), R Wilson (capt).
Ref – A Rolland (IRFU)