Saturday 15 December 2018

Tony Ward: Traditional Munster values go missing in Bordeaux heat as Leinster raise bar for rest to follow

CJ Stander during the semi-final match between Racing 92 and Munster. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

For 24 hours we dared to dream, but where Leinster delivered Munster did not. The intensity, the physicality, the defensive line speed - so often epitomised by Rory Scannell as a high-risk midfield shooter - were all key Munster traits that were marked by their absence on this massive occasion in the south of France.

In the end just five points separated the sides in Bordeaux but if anyone suggested it was an accurate reflection of what had gone before, they would be deluding themselves. Racing did not win pulling up but they did win much more comfortably than the 27-22 scoreline suggests.

Yes, there was pride reflected in three second-half tries but when Teddy Thomas crossed for what should have been the completion of his first-half hat-trick, this game as a contest was effectively done and dusted and with it went a place in the Bilbao final. The early try-scoring triple-whammy, inspired by Maxime Machenaud, Virimi Vakatawa and Thomas, rocked Munster to the core. They were shellshocked. Just 25 minutes in and it wasn't just catch-up but the pursuit of a lost cause.

Maybe the temperature was a factor, maybe the travelling to and from South Africa, maybe the pressure piled on courtesy of Leinster's winning performance the previous day, but whatever the reason this wasn't Munster in a European semi-final of old.

Whatever a team in red may lack in skill against more talented opposition is usually compensated through sheer unadulterated doggedness. Not this time. Now they hung on in there yesterday and ultimately made the score respectable but in the cold light of day, those central to it will concede that respectability means nothing once the war is lost.

In unit terms, this could best be described as a poor Munster performance. Individually, Conor Murray, Rory Scannell plus second-half replacements Simon Zebo and Rhys Marshall could hold their heads high. Beyond that they were poor with neither Ian Keatley nor JJ Hanrahan inspiring any confidence though the playmaking role.

But the real problems were much closer in where with hand on heart I could not see an on-field leader when it was most needed - the fearless Murray apart. On this must-win occasion, and it pains me to say it, Billy Holland, Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander - this team's leaders - were individually and collectively 'as lathair'.

Leinster, by contrast, brought a level of aggression and pure out-and-out physicality to the Aviva that quite frankly didn't give Scarlets a sniff and, as in the south of France, the outcome in Dublin was determined well before the half-time break.

What we so take for granted in the men from the south is right now (in a purely Irish context) the preserve of the Beast from the East.

Watching the Beast demolish the West Walians was like watching Saracens or Toulon over the past five cup-winning seasons chew up and spit out any opponent that came their way.

And it is going to take the same level of relentless, remorseless aggression for the full 80 to dispose of Racing in five weeks' time.

To be fair to Munster, falling off tackles and conceding cheap yards is not normally their thing but rest assured the lessons from yesterday will have been heeded by Leo Cullen, Stuart Lancaster and Girvan Dempsey. If not then an equally rude awakening will be on the way in the final.

By contrast to the second semi, what we witnessed in Dublin was without doubt the most complete Leinster performance of the season and the execution of a premeditated tactical plan to match their best ever in Europe and there have been many.

So good were they that to pick a man of the match from Cian Healy wearing one to Jordan Larmour at 23 would be nigh on impossible.

The official nod went to Scott Fardy and we'll not argue with that but with Jamison Gibson-Park really stepping up to the plate and with Johnny Sexton at his authoritative, belligerent best, Leinster were in cruise control and never, not even for Tadhg Beirne's consolation try, did they take the foot off the gas.

But their cards have now been marked and it is going to take the same level of intensity against Racing to add a fourth star to that blue shirt. And while unfair to single out one in such a complete team performance, I felt Robbie Henshaw's, given the circumstances, was something else again. He may not have the skill set of a Garry Ringrose or Bundee Aki but it is the Westmeath man who makes these guys tick.

He is selfless to a fault with his work rate off the ball infectious to team-mates - backs and forwards alike. He is a class act in the true meaning of the word. As for James Ryan, we'll just draw our breath and leave it at that.

As to beating Racing? A repeat of Saturday and that fourth star is on the way.

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