Friday 17 January 2020

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Irish rugby, and Irish sport, needs Munster to start being Munster again'

Southern province have lost their 'Munsterness' as they slide even further behind Europe's elite

Rueful Reds: Andrew Conway gestures to Munster supporters following defeat to Racing 9. Photo: Sportsfile
Rueful Reds: Andrew Conway gestures to Munster supporters following defeat to Racing 9. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Munster just don't seem like Munster anymore. Their defeat by Racing 92 in the space-age disco surroundings of the La Defense Arena was like the kind of thing Ulster used to produce on big European afternoons. A promising start was followed by a gutsy spell of hanging in there and eventually a thumping defeat.

Making the customary noises about pride and passion and unstinting effort would be not just condescending but downright insulting.

Because what has defined Munster in European competition has been an ability to get the job done, whether that involved attaining the necessary winning margin against Gloucester, amassing 40 phases for Ronan O'Gara to score a winning drop goal against Northampton, or choking the life out of Toulouse and Biarritz.

Hence the collective hunch all week that another glorious, odds-defying, backs-to-the-wall performance might be on the cards. Instead, the bottom line is a 17-point defeat and almost certain elimination before the knockout stages.

When you consider how often the mantra about Munster being fed up of losing semi-finals was intoned last year this is some disaster. Who expected the province to take such a drastic step to end the run of final-four disappointment?

Three tries in the last nine minutes may have flattered Racing but the home side might already have been out of sight had it not been for Andrew Conway's extraordinary intercept try just before half-time.

Munster coach Johann van Graan has much to ponder after yesterday’s loss. Photo: Sportsfile
Munster coach Johann van Graan has much to ponder after yesterday’s loss. Photo: Sportsfile

Munster have been slightly unfortunate this season. Joey Carbery's absence was a cruel blow and a horribly difficult draw did them no favours. But this display, and those preceding it, confirmed prior suspicions that Munster are being left behind by the continent's elite.

The appointment of Stephen Larkham as effective second-in-command to Johann van Graan represented a recognition of this fact.

It has also given rise to boosterish exaggerations of Larkham's influence as isolated cameos were seized upon to pretend the Australian had instantly wrought profound change.

In reality the work of transformation will take some time. In their biggest game of the season, Munster were once more dogged by the lack of imagination, ambition and creativity which has stymied them in recent years.

A moment in the 35th minute was indicative of the general malaise. Mike Haley had a four-to-two overlap to work with just inside his own half after a loose Racing clearance.

He opted to put boot to ball and sterility of conception was matched by imprecision of execution as the kick sailed out on the full.

Just after Teddy Thomas' second try had put Racing into the lead nine minutes from time, Munster enjoyed a sustained spell of possession around halfway.

There was space out wide yet the visitors expended massive energy in going nowhere and soon afterwards Virimi Vakatawa was scoring the clinching five-pointer.

Munster continually launched hopeful high balls at the opposition in the manner of old-school English soccer teams who reckoned your poncy continentals didn't like it up 'em.

Vakatawa gave one of the most eye-catching performances in a giant nightclub since Bianca Jagger rode a white horse across the dancefloor at Studio 54.

Munster just couldn't cope with him and, as he slipped between Haley and Conway for a 76th-minute try, the former's body language conveyed dejection mixed with resignation.

He was a broken man on a broken team and Racing's decision to seek a bonus-point try with the final play was the crowning indignity.

Once no one would have done this kind of thing against Munster. They'd have been too glad to get off the field after playing them.

Munster have fallen behind to such an extent that when the province's followers talk about their great rivalry with Leinster they seem guilty of not just delusion but impudence.

Leinster's 15-0 start to the season and the fact that they could put 42 points on Lyon while a long way off their best indicates an ascent into another sphere.

The kind of pipeline producing a host of exciting young talent for Leo Cullen seems conspicuously absent in Munster.

A cynic might suggest that Munster's best hope for the future may lie in Leinster not having room for all its young talent so that the overflow is diverted south to follow in the footsteps of Carbery, Conway and Tadhg Beirne.

But Munster needs to produce its own heroes to follow in the footsteps of O'Gara, O'Connell, Foley, Hayes et al. Peter O'Mahony belongs in that company and it was sobering to think that the great back-row, typically lion-hearted in defeat, may end his provincial career without winning anything.

Sobering also to realise that Munster's best performers, Dave Kilcoyne, Keith Earls, Conor Murray and O'Mahony are 30 or over. This is not a team with time on its side and its difficulties have been compounded by the underwhelming nature of its overseas acquisitions.

Munster rugby is so generally beloved that there's always the temptation to simply take the sentimental route, sing a metaphorical verse of 'There is an Isle' and declare that everything will turn out OK in the end.

The truth is that the province is in trouble and faces an arduous climb back to the top. It's important that the right course is plotted.

Irish rugby, and Irish sport, needs Munster to start being Munster again.

Irish Independent

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