Thursday 22 March 2018

Tony Ward: Munster have kinder European route but Leinster look better equipped in almost every respect

Leinster have better options for European tilt as Munster lack ideas behind scrum

Devin Toner of Leinster is tackled by Munster’s John Ryan and Niall Scannell. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Devin Toner of Leinster is tackled by Munster’s John Ryan and Niall Scannell. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

We may not always like fronting up but the truth hurts. And while it pains me to say it, my expectation, like so many others ahead of Saturday's game, was way in excess of what was actually delivered. It's clear that this fixture, whether in the national stadium or Thomond Park, is now what it says on the tin: a preparation for either Round 1 in October or Round 5 in early January of the Champions Cup.

We haven't yet gone full circle, back to the grossly exaggerated days of 'two men and a dog' in Dooradoyle or Donnybrook, but I suspect the RDS may well be called back into service in the future given that the fixture is now apparently acknowledged by both organisations as a very definite means to an end (Europe) rather than an end in itself.

Such is the reality of life in the fast lane of 2017 'club' rugby. It certainly didn't even come close to being a final trial in front of Joe Schmidt's scrutinising eyes for the November internationals but at least there are two big European weekends ahead of round 2 of the interpros and more rest time I guess (for the international elite) before the Guinness Test month.

The gap in the end was only six points so at least Munster took something from another disappointing visit to the Aviva.

Quite whether they deserved the bonus I'm not so sure. They've played better and come away with less but Leinster, without coming remotely close to top gear, took the so-called bragging rights a lot easier than they might have expected.

The offence taken by Peter O'Mahony when being questioned about his side's intensity, or rather the implied lack of same, can be understood given his role as captain and the type of passionate captain he is and yet the fact remains that this latest clash between the two top rugby tribes on this island lacked the type of intensity and no-holds-barred physicality we have come to associate with the fixture.

Keith Earls shows his disappointment. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Keith Earls shows his disappointment. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Leinster didn't have to produce anything spectacular and yet were fully deserving of the win.

I worry for Munster Rugby on two levels. Firstly, the elephant in the room that is the coaching shambles and, secondly, the absence yet again on the biggest stage, although not a final or semi-final, of any clear and decipherable plan behind the scrum.

A left-field selection that included three players whose specialist position is out-half should be music to my ears and yet when confirmed on Friday at lunchtime, my immediate thought was of panic and indecision in the camp.

Yes, it was added to by Jaco Taute's unfortunate injury but there was no rhyme nor reason to selecting three outside-halves in the same backline for a game of this magnitude.

I can see some logic to attempting to plug the gap left by Taute through Tyler Bleyendaal's footballing ability allied to his size but take away the second element and why not JJ Hanrahan at 12?

Three first receivers is pie in sky stuff. There is but one out-half...period; having a second playmaker (as with Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell in New Zealand) does have some merit but shared responsibility must never detract from the driving role of the one wearing ten.

Ian Keatley was nowhere near the force witnessed in Thomond Park seven days before but aside from Keith Earls (who is in the form of his life) and Andrew Conway who was?

I feel particularly for Conway because having played so well at full-back so far this season, being transferred to the wing to play Leinster will have done his confidence little good.

On current form and matches played it should be Conway and Joey Carbery in that order for the No 15 shirt to face the South Africans first up. If fit, Jared Payne will of course come into the mix but for the life of me I cannot see the logic to Munster's backline selection other than panic and the hope that it would come right on the day.

The bulk of the positives were in the blue corner with Johnny Sexton in complete control and on this occasion fully deserving of his man of the match award.

There were no other first receivers in this Leinster line-up beyond a domineering out-half. As it should be. Josh van der Flier again put his hand up as our outstanding specialist openside in succession to Chris Henry. I expect the question of balance in the Ireland line-up for the forthcoming internationals will see O'Mahony at six and Seán O'Brien at seven with the call between CJ Stander and Jack Conan for eight, leaving Van der Flier for fluidity in impact off the bench.

Credit Leo Cullen and John Fogarty for the power impact of Cian Healy, Seán Cronin and Michael Bent as a unit replacement and of the timing - bear in mind they still have Ed Byrne, Richardt Strauss and Andrew Porter as a third stream.

Rory O'Loughlin again did well for his two tries, particularly the first one. He may find a slot on the wing to face Montpellier on the assumption Garry Ringrose is fit and what a difference he will make alongside Robbie Henshaw in the centre.

The general consensus was that this match would show where both sides were at and it did.

Munster may have the kinder route to the European play-offs but it is Leinster who are by far the better equipped - and in almost every respect.

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