Thursday 22 February 2018

George Hook: Munster's headless chickens desperately need direction

Denis Hurley, Munster
Denis Hurley, Munster
George Hook

George Hook

Sometimes blessings creep in when least expected. Munster's defeat to Leinster at the Aviva highlighted serious shortcomings in their current coaching ticket and when Rob Penney departs the province for Japan at the end of this season, the Munster branch can breathe a heavy sigh of relief.

This was far from a classic, but much of Leinster's game was superior. Their movement off the ball was in stark contrast to Munster's laboured efforts and though errors littered both sides' play in the first half, Leinster always looked more comfortable in attack and in defence.

Munster's headless-chicken act every time they got their hands on the ball made for difficult viewing. It was as if they didn't know what to do with it. There was no discernible game plan and they rarely looked like scoring a try.

One has to wonder what backs coach Simon Mannix has been doing for the past two years?


Munster's back line failed to form anything close to a cohesive working relationship and, with Denis Hurley aimlessly bashing his way up the middle at every single opportunity, it is a wonder Simon Zebo and Keith Earls got any possession at all.

How did the coach think that Hurley was the right man for the job? What did Penney hope to achieve by planting a limited passer with very little pace into the middle of his back line?

Penney pushed to expand Munster's passing game when he first arrived.

The New Zealander went to great lengths to move his squad away from the Munster traditions of 10-man rugby and sold his tenure on an ability to develop a more exciting, expansive game. It is baffling in the extreme how this new plan can accommodate a centre that cannot pass the ball.

Felix Jones is not the future at full-back. I admire his resilience in recovering from a couple of career-threatening injuries, but the weaknesses in his game have been exposed on too many occasions.

Jones' trick of jigging his head up and down in an effort to create the illusion that he is running faster than he really is, is dizzying to watch and not very effective.

Maybe he got the idea from studying Paula Radcliffe's technique, but it has been obvious for some time that his capabilities in attack are limited.

Munster had a chance to win this match and they blew it. A dominant scrum, a solid line-out and an out-half who kicked superbly throughout, should have given them the ideal platform to come out on top, but somehow they managed to lose it. Leinster were far from their best, with handling errors and dropped passes aplenty in the first 40 minutes. That they managed to hang in and reduce Munster to penalty kicks at goal was testament to their self-belief.

The occasion itself played a part in the number of unforced errors from the home side.

Leinster's scrum was a shambles. Matt O'Connor will be praying novenas into the small hours that Cian Healy and Jack McGrath recover from their respective injuries ahead of the Heineken Cup quarter-final on Sunday. Yet again the Michael Bent experiment was shown up as a complete disaster.

Why do Leinster persist with a prop forward who cannot scrummage? Eight minutes into the game Munster were six points up, both penalties given away by an incompetent loosehead.

Bent was originally brought into Ireland as a tighthead prop. He switched to the opposite side when it was abundantly clear that he wasn't good enough. As it turns out, he can do neither well.

With BJ Botha giving his southern hemisphere counterpart a lesson, Dave Kilcoyne was a man possessed. The UL Bohemians player must be unhappy at how his career has diminished with the emergence of McGrath for Ireland and James Cronin in Munster and he did his best to destroy everything that moved on Saturday.

In typical fashion, Mike Ross coped well and despite the frenzied efforts of his front-row opponent, it is hard to make a case for promoting Kilcoyne ahead of McGrath in the national pecking order.

Kilcoyne's greatest challenge next season will come from within his own province and I wouldn't be surprised to see Cronin emerge as first choice in the front-row.

Alain Rolland had a mixed performance; the yellow card to Kilcoyne was merited, but Leinster escaped the sin bin on a couple of occasions where they should have been reduced to 14 men. Cynics will say Rolland favoured the home team, but Leinster were just smarter about how they handled the Irish official.


If Healy and McGrath are vital to Leinster's cause in Toulon, it is equally important that Brian O'Driscoll comes through.

A whiff of individual magic was the key to unlocking the opposition defence and O'Driscoll's line to take Shane Jennings' offload was worthy of a try. Initial reports from the camp suggested O'Driscoll retired in the second half with a sore neck, but he seemed to be struggling with his calf as he made his way off the pitch.

A difficult battle with the human barrel Mathieu Bastareaud awaits; O'Driscoll must be fit to play.

Munster, true to form, will produce an improved performance against Toulouse this weekend, but they must decide on how they want to play. Last season's breathtaking victory over Harlequins at the Stoop was down to the work rate and ferocity of the forwards.

Munster must play to their strengths; keep the ball tight and be confident in their own ability when they do go wide. They showed very little faith in these capabilities at the Aviva and Penney must take the blame for the sub-standard performance.

There is no room for Hurley in the centre on Saturday and I would like to see Zebo start at full-back, with Gerhard van den Heever coming on to the wing. A marked improvement will be needed.

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