Monday 25 March 2019

George Hook: Munster's horror show at Allianz Park down to lack of muscle

Peter O’Mahony, left, and Paul O’Connell lead Munster’s vanquished troops off the pitch after losing to Saracens last weekend. The Red Army need to realise they no longer are the force they once were.
Peter O’Mahony, left, and Paul O’Connell lead Munster’s vanquished troops off the pitch after losing to Saracens last weekend. The Red Army need to realise they no longer are the force they once were.
Leinster's Luke Fitzgerald during squad training ahead of their match against Wasps today

George Hook

The absence of key personnel over the course of this season and a stubborn long-term injury list since September, have been crutches for the Leinster coach Matt O'Connor when attempting to account for poor performances.

To be fair, O'Connor has had more than his share of squad absentees over the past five months, with Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien joining the likes of Dave Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Ben Te'o, Dominic Ryan, Rhys Ruddock and Richardt Strauss in the Leinster sick bay.

Leinster's injury woes are perfectly understandable, such has been the seismic shift in emphasis from skill, pace and guile to brute strength and disproportionately large BMI levels in the game of rugby union over the last decade.

This modern-day game is almost unrecognisable from the sport that so enthralled and captivated fans during the last century.

A professional squad in 2015 needs three players in every position to be able to withstand the physical demands of a typical season. A sport that actively encourages dangerous collisions is always going to yield broken bodies. Leinster, this season, are a typical case in point.

Similarly, Munster's horror show at the Allianz Arena last weekend stemmed from their inability to compete upfront. The lack of sufficient size and muscle in the pack was painfully apparent from the opening exchanges against Saracens.

Paul O'Connell's super-human powers are well documented, but even the giant lock could not carry Munster on his own. If anything, the Ireland captain looked exhausted and resigned to the inevitable in London.

One thing is clear - Munster have a serious problem on their hands that can only be fixed with significant investment in overseas talent. If they fail to recruit properly this summer, it is difficult to foresee any meaningful progression over the next season.

This afternoon, O'Connor leads an almost fully fit Leinster squad into battle against Wasps at the Ricoh Arena. Victory for Leinster would secure a lucrative home quarter-final, while even a losing bonus point would more than likely see them through to the last eight.

Wasps' recent switch from the glum surroundings of High Wycombe to their new home in Coventry was not without controversy, but the move has unquestionably revived the team's form. Dai Young's side have scored 86 points and 9 tries over the course of their last two home games in the Aviva Premiership and they remain unbeaten at the Ricoh Arena in all competitions.

Last weekend's victory at the Stoop was achieved with just 30pc possession, yet they still managed to score two tries and 23 points, while limiting Harlequins to just one penalty kick at goal.

The ferocious work rate of the Wasps' back row has been a feature under Young this season and nobody epitomises this commitment in defence like former England open side James Haskell. His impressive form and particularly his dominance over England captain Chris Robshaw last weekend should give Stuart Lancaster a sufficient selection headache ahead of the 6 Nations next month.

If Leinster are to come out on top this afternoon, they must be clinical in possession. Harlequins dominated territory last week, yet they failed to convert that advantage into points. Wasps thrive off turn-over ball and if Leinster are sloppy at the breakdown, Wasps have pace on the wings to punish them.

Last weekend aside, where Leinster ran riot against an abysmal and disinterested Castres at the RDS, tries have been hard to come by for the Irish province. Too many times this season Leinster have dominated possession, only for handling errors and poor decision-making to let them down in scoring positions. Today is all about execution.

Wasps are no world-beaters, but they have a good coach and a clever and experienced fly-half in Andy Goode. If Leinster get their set-piece right and neuter the physicality of Haskell and Bradley Davies, they should have enough to win.

Ian Madigan and Luke Fitzgerald are blossoming into a dangerous centre partnership; one would hope they will receive sufficient opportunities to run at the Wasps' three-quarter line.

Healy and O'Brien aside, O'Brien has a full deck to chose from today. The injury crutch of the last few months has been taken away and the Leinster coach must stand over this performance as a measure of his worth. A win will appease the doubters. Defeat would leave serious questions over his future.

That Munster face into the final weekend of pool games with nothing to play for is a damning indictment of just how far the two-time European champions have fallen in recent years.

Maybe the sight of a half-empty, lack-lustre Thomond Park on Sunday might jolt the Munster branch into immediate action. Without serious and prudent investment, the short-term future for Munster rugby does not bear thinking about.

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