Sunday 18 March 2018

Tony Ward: Ian Keatley must not be blamed for Munster's lack of killer instinct

'Ian Keatley has earned his place over the course of the season and should be the game-manager in the final'
'Ian Keatley has earned his place over the course of the season and should be the game-manager in the final'
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

They say a league table never lies and the closeness of both Guinness Pro12 semi-finals certainly bore that out. In the end, home comforts made all the difference for Glasgow and Munster.

If Glasgow left it close - almost the last kick of the game - then Munster left it even closer again given the nature of the disallowed try which appeared to have edged the Ospreys into the Kingspan finale in the very last play.

Both semi-finals could have gone either way and yet, while the Ulster and Ospreys faithful might argue otherwise, in both cases justice was done. The best two teams over the course of the 23-match marathon have made it through to the Belfast showdown.

And of those two, Glasgow have been the form outfit. Despite losing out in last year's final (when Leinster under Matt O'Connor produced their last real tour de force), the Warriors have provided the most scintillating winning rugby of any side in the Pro12.

They still have a massive psychological barrier to be overcome at the Kingspan in four days' time but they must feel that this is a great opportunity to take that trophy home to Scotstoun.


For their opponents, it is a different prerogative. Quite apart from looking like Paul O'Connell's final game in Munster red, this is a real chance to establish a new winning era for the province under Anthony Foley. They are still some way from the finished article just now but factor in the new signings and a squad in transition could be ready to move on to the next stage and become genuine Champions Cup challengers next season.

There was, however, one very big difference between the route taken by the best of Scottish and best of Irish to Saturday's domestic final. Whereas Glasgow won theirs at the death, Munster almost did the complete reverse.

And therein lies the biggest concern, and the biggest frustration, in this new squad's development and it relates directly to closing games out.

Now had Ian Keatley been in half-decent goalkicking form the result would have been done and dusted long before the end. He had a shocker in that key respect but despite the clamour for JJ Hanrahan or indeed Tyler Bleyendaal to wear ten on Saturday, it is Keatley who should be given the nod. He can blow hot and cold and certainly on current form has dropped to at least three in the national out-half pecking order behind Johnny Sexton and Paddy Jackson. That said, Keatley has earned his place over the course of the season and should be the game-manager in the final.

And he wasn't alone in almost opening the Thomond trap-door on Saturday. The inability to put the opposition away, the Munster way, is something that's yet to be fully mastered by this still-developing squad. Think back to when Ronan O'Gara and Foley ruled the roost as players when percentage rugby and up the jumper meant just that. With just minutes left on the clock and a sensible call to the corner made against the Ospreys, I could not for the life of me imagine teams of previous eras opening any similar window of opportunity for opponents.

Justice was done and Josh Matavesi's apparent match-winning try was rightly disallowed for the knock-on by Rhys Webb in the build-up. It was unquestionably the correct call but it does bring up another issue and that relates to the time lost from the moment of the handling error to the scoring of the disallowed try.

In this instance the Ospreys suffered a double-whammy given the decision to blow up the match on the TMO's pretty straightforward call. Granted the scrum for the restart would have been to Munster and you would have expected them to win their own ball but the Ospreys were denied the opportunity to even compete for one last shot and that can't be right. Just as the Connacht time issue at Rodney Parade went to the other extreme, there are issues still to be addressed by the law-makers as to when full-time means full-time.

On an individual level, both props - Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer - were immense for Munster. So too the back-row of Peter O'Mahony, Paddy Butler and man of the match CJ Stander. Duncan Williams too did well when replacing Conor Murray early on.

All told, it made for the correct outcome although Steve Tandy might not agree with that assessment. We will deal with what lies ahead later in the week but even if it is by the skin of their teeth, both finalists are there on merit and it should be an intriguing decider.

But if there has been a more riveting rugby match played anywhere this year than that witnessed at Kingsholm on Sunday, then I'm sorry I missed it. Gloucester earned a place in the final play-off for Champions Cup qualification but Pat Lam and Connacht earned the lion's share of the glory for a match of quality rugby that will live long in the memory.


Professionally that will offer little consolation and yet there were so many positives from a display of such substance. A little like Munster, they have still to learn to close a game out although at least at this time of asking they managed to hit the ground running a lot earlier than in other recent games.

In specific terms, and have little doubt Joe Schmidt has been taking note, John Cooney, Jack Carty (absolutely outstanding), Robbie Henshaw, Tiernan O'Halloran and Matt Healy were on fire. All backs and all home-produced even if Cooney and Healy come from the east. The pack too was on song with John Muldoon as ever the catalyst leading from the front.

In the final analysis, poor refereeing again let them down, particularly the penalty awarded to Gloucester leading to the equalising try. A harsh lesson in a performance that even in defeat did Irish rugby proud.

Irish Independent

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