Sunday 25 February 2018

Munster's discipline problems are fixable

Van Graan's men need to cut out needless cards but penalty count is no cause for alarm

Referee Sean Gallagher shows Sam Arnold a red card during Monday’s defeat to Ulster to increase Munster’s card count for the season. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Referee Sean Gallagher shows Sam Arnold a red card during Monday’s defeat to Ulster to increase Munster’s card count for the season. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Nobody in rugby wants to be known as the nice guys, but at the end of each season at the Guinness PRO14 awards an award is handed out for the most disciplined team.

Sponsored by Specsavers, the 'Fair Play' table is updated throughout the campaign and the prize at the end of the campaign is £10,000 for that club's academy. It's not to be sniffed at.

Munster, it is fair to say, won't be picking up that particular cheque this year. Currently, they sit at the bottom of the table after Sam Arnold picked up their third red card of the campaign against Ulster on New Year's Day.

After 12 rounds, Glasgow Warriors and Scarlets are leading the way at the top of the 'Fair Play' table and, laterally, they sit atop the PRO14's conferences as well.

It would be easy to draw a correlation between the two, but the 'Fair Play' table does not tell a full tale. It gives points for yellow and red cards and doesn't take into account the number of penalties a team is conceding.

That picture looks far prettier for the Reds who are averaging 9.7 penalties a game, a figure that leaves them firmly in the middle ground of teams across Europe and the PRO14.

Munster, however, don't aspire to being average. They are a team with realistic ambitions to win both competitions.

To do so, they need to keep 15 men on the pitch for as long as possible.

Nine yellow cards and three reds across 16 games is too many and it is costing them at valuable moments.

Issue

The general penalty count is not the issue. Indeed, in Munster's five defeats this season they have only come out on the wrong side of the penalty count twice - against Leinster in the Aviva Stadium and in Belfast last Monday.

And yet they have lost all three games in which a player was sent off.

Fineen Wycherley saw red for making contact with the head of Tim Swinson with a reckless charge into a ruck during the loss to Glasgow in September; a month later Andrew Conway went high and late on Tiernan O'Halloran in the defeat to Connacht and Arnold was dismissed for his thunderous high hit on Christian Lealiifano last Monday.

His dismissal left his side down to 13 men and was a contributing factor behind the second-half collapse that saw the Reds beaten having led 17-0 at the break. He'll now miss three weeks through suspension.

Nobody is suggesting that they are a dirty team, but had referees taken a different view of Andrew Conway's contact with James Lowe in the Leinster game on St Stephen's Day or Sean Gallagher viewed John Ryan's first-half tackle on Jean Deysel differently on Monday, they might have an even more serious scenario on their hands.

Johann van Graan has reviewed the discipline issue and has come to the conclusion that it is a question of decision-making rather than a systematic problem.

An analytical mind, he must work out why his team have been shown six more cards than Glasgow Warriors across this season, despite conceding 22 fewer penalties.

"It has been addressed," CJ Stander said yesterday.

"It was addressed before we played Leicester home and away. It showed, especially now going away in Europe, you can't play with more than ten penalties in a game.

"In rugby, if you get more than 10 penalties in a game you are going to be in trouble. It's something that has been addressed. It's surely a work-on.

"It's an individual thing, and if every guy gives a penalty away it's 15 in a game and it's something we need to address."

Against Leicester, Munster were praised for reading the referee better than their opponents and generally being the smarter of the two teams. That is a benchmark that they must hit on a more regular basis if they are to achieve their ambitions at the end of this season.

The issue pre-dates Van Graan, but was not something Rassie Erasmus had to deal with all that much last season. It is a 2017/'18 problem.

"They were quite lucky if you look at the rucks against Leicester at Thomond Park," Luke Fitzgerald said on this week's The Left Wing podcast. "Some of the leaders in the team, there was one before half-time when CJ Stander flopped over a ruck and it was 100pc a yellow card.

"They have a tendency to do that, there's a real lesson in that for them. Even if you're going to concede a try, you're better off with 15 players on the pitch.

"Andrew Conway was fairly lucky against Leicester, they've a few things they need to be careful with going forward.

"I like Sam Arnold, I know that tackle was loose enough and definitely a red card - but you hate to see guys taking those chances. John Ryan had one where he kind of tipped a guy as well.

Unnecessary

"They are unnecessary risks. This Munster team has enough quality, they don't need to be doing these things. They have enough quality around the pitch to be really, really competitive and there at the end of the season.

"These kind of mistakes are crucial for them to snuff out. They're taking chances.

"The high-ball stuff as well, there have been a few where they're on the edge. They need to get it in order, but it's an easy thing to fix and they can do that and kick on."

Like Stander, Fitzgerald is well used to Joe Schmidt's approach to discipline that sees Ireland regularly end up on the right side of referees. In training, the New Zealander will punish players for their ill-discipline and that translates into low penalty counts.

The 'Fair Play' award might be beyond them at this stage, but if Munster are to lift the more serious silverware at the end of the season they'll need to find a way of keeping 15 men on the pitch for longer.

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