Saturday 26 May 2018

Munster have the talent to play with licence to thrill

Penney's men cause wholesale panic for rigid modern-day systems when they perform off the cuff

Munster's JJ Hanrahan (L) celebrates with Felix Jones after his last-gasp try secured victory over Perpignan sportsfile
Munster's JJ Hanrahan (L) celebrates with Felix Jones after his last-gasp try secured victory over Perpignan sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

What we witnessed at the weekend was Heineken Cup back-to-back rugby at its very best. From an Irish perspective, it was, of course, disappointing given what transpired the previous weekend.

Even on the assumption we will still have a European tournament resembling this masterpiece again, it is doubtful we will ever have all four provinces involved, never mind all four winning on the same day, with two on the road.

It made for the greatest Irish rugby weekend ever outside of the Test arena. On that basis, it was inevitable that what followed would have to be a let-down by comparison. It was, but only relatively so.

While Connacht and Leinster were the victims of revenge, Ulster and Munster stepped up to the plate in making it two wins from two.

For Ulster in Italy it was expected, but for Munster to again storm the citadel that is the Stade Aime Giral takes some doing, and particularly in the manner they did.

VINTAGE

It wasn't vintage Munster in so far as this is a new generation feeling their way. They are a work in progress and still very far from the finished article.

I don't share Rob Penney's view that JJ Hanrahan's "special" try "vindicates a change in playing style," or as the head coach put it: "We wouldn't have scored that try in the last minute if the boys hadn't been trying it at other opportunities and having the faith to have a go."

Desperation and throwing caution to the wind, allied with the individual brilliance of Tommy O'Donnell and most particularly Hanrahan, led to a winning try at the death that will live long in the memory. When a Hanrahan or an Ian Madigan does something off the cuff, it immediately causes wholesale panic in rigidly organised modern-day systems.

Of course, it leads to the odd howler -- such as Hanrahan's crazy chip against Edinburgh in the opening-round defeat at Murrayfield -- but give me the player possessed of the bottle to give it a go in the first place. Saturday's winning try was crafted out of desperation, nothing more, nothing less.

It had nothing whatsoever to do with a change in playing style but everything with doing what comes naturally to rugby players when the chips are down. Run to wherever there is space in search of the try line.

Penney is finding the cultural change tough but he is cut out of the same Canterbury cloth that has long helped Munster rugby become the force it is.

They are severely short in creative class and finishing ability behind the scrum. I would dearly love to see backs coach Simon Manix mix it up a little better and utilise the skills of Hanrahan, Andrew Conway, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo (when he is back fit and firing) more productively. There is enough talent and natural running ability to piece together an attacking backline alongside Casey Laulala, while he is still there.

There is also, true to tradition, a serious forward force emerging, one with real strength in depth. In O'Donnell and Peter O'Mahony, they have two class back-rowers destined to play together for Ireland, while Donnacha Ryan's new deal makes a good weekend great for Munster. Once he gets a lid on that temper, he has the potential to become one of the greatest Munster forwards -- and forward leaders -- ever.

The main point is that what Munster did at the death wasn't honed on the training pitch. What we got was running born of necessity and therein lies the real message for Penney, Manix, Anthony Foley and everyone else concerned: the skill set and ability is there if they are willing to play it off the cuff when that chance arises.

And in all the understandable praise being heaped on the high-numbered players following their impact off the bench, it was out-half Ian Keatley who had the initial wherewithal to switch direction and, with it, the point of attack.

Room should be found in a restructured unit for Keatley, Hanrahan, Earls, Conway and Laulala irrespective of what is already there.

All that said, doesn't the extraordinary force that is Munster rugby make you immensely proud, irrespective of your roots? No team in world sport epitomises that never-say-die attitude more. They won a game again on Saturday they had no right to and are now in control of the pool and at the top of the Pro12.

Extending Penney's deal ought to be a no-brainer for those charged with that responsibility. He is not, despite suggestions to the contrary, inculcating a new style of play but what he is doing incredibly well is facilitating the transition from one generation to the next.

The big issue, short of taking out the cheque book, is in maximising the resources at their disposal and Saturday's intuitive try merely papers over the glaringly obvious attacking cracks. The Munster glass is half full but right now behind the scrum it could do with a bit of filling.

The less said about Leinster the better. They let themselves down badly. They may now have to do it the hard way but one thing's for sure, they will certainly give it a go.

As for Ulster, while working away nicely under the radar with a maximum 10-point return, the real work in Pool 5 -- at home to Montpellier and away to Leicester -- is just about to begin.

All that said, with just the January games to go and our big three leading their respective pools, three of the last-eight qualifiers could be Irish. No chickens being counted just yet but hugely encouraging nonetheless.

Irish Independent

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