Sunday 18 March 2018

Neil Francis: A 37-day stinger?! Conor Murray must be on the field for Munster next week

Conor Murray's fitness is the greatest concerns for Munster. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Conor Murray's fitness is the greatest concerns for Munster. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster's Rory Scannell is tackled by Ulster duo Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding in Thomond Park yesterday Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A 22-20 win for Munster in Thomond. A match they could have and should have lost but still managed to win… as they always seem to do.

The difference between the sides being knowing how to play and knowing how to win. The knowing how to win has been an elusive quality for this Ulster side: excellent in some aspects throughout the game, but their team resembling a six-pack lacking the little plastic bit to keep it all together.

We will deal with the bigger picture in a while but Ulster are worthy of comment. Their process and strategy is making progress on the pitch but nearly a dozen unforced errors are all mental, and until they can eradicate these they are going nowhere.

Once April comes there is a new metric in how the game is played in the Pro12. On a dry day with practically no wind, Ulster off-loaded and played out of the tackle with abandon and they did many things which unsettled Munster, which another Ulster man, Mark McCall, will note in the Saracens video room. There is no point in being flinty and aggressive unless you do it for the full 80, and that is why Ulster failed. The aggression has to be sustained for the entire game.

In the Ulster ranks, Paddy Jackson continues to mature but the folly of playing Iain Henderson at No 6 has been shown up. His ability fully justifies a Lions tour but I fear it will not happen this time around. It is sad because he is a far better second-row than some of the players who will be selected.

I thought Charles Piutau was a disgrace yesterday. He was sensational for Wasps last season and has produced moments for Ulster this season. On his day he could be described as the best player in Europe but yesterday he looked like he had wandered on to the pitch from a section of the stand.

Luke Marshall looked really good and we wonder why this player has not had more caps. Ulster were lucky in the fact that they bagged a bonus point but the Ospreys, as is their wont, managed to lose to the lamentable Cardiff Blues on what the Welsh were calling Judgement Day - more like Jelly Baby Day!

Ulster go to the Liberty in two weeks' time knowing that they have to win. The semi-finals, though, will be the extent of their ambition and then more head-scratching and a visit back to that worn-out drawing board.

Munster can be satisfied in the lead-up to next week's big game. Their biggest issue now outside of their superstars on the injury table is Rory Scannell. The slow-mo looked really bad. He will be a serious loss to Munster as he is quietly and efficiently one of their best tacklers, and for somebody with so little game-time in the serious leagues he is a very smart player and a great addition as a 'second eighth'. His hands are very good but his loss will be most keenly felt in the bash zone 10 metres either side of the breakdown.

Francis Saili dazzled when in possession and it is doubtful that Munster would have gotten over the Ulster line without his sparkling footwork for Keith Earls' try. However, he is a cheeky Charlie, and while offensively he is as good as his predecessor Lifeimi Mafi, his defence is every bit as awful and undisciplined, and Saracens will look to take advantage. Jaco Taute is going to have a busy day next Saturday.

One of the things that Saracens will look at is how many times Ulster opened up Munster three men away from the tackle scene off phase play. Andrew Trimble got through, Marshall got through and Jacob Stockdale also got through, and I have a funny feeling that Saracens will go looking in this area. A flat cut-out pass right on the line and then Saracens will get their very dangerous wingers Chris Ashton and Sean Maitland ghosting through into space or coming in behind decoy runners. I'm no fan of Chris Ashton but he will need to be watched like a hawk - and I suspect that Warren Gatland might pick him for the Lions tour on Wednesday.

Munster had difficulty dealing with Ulster's off-load game, and if you have watched Saracens recently, this is what they do; their support runners read it very well, and instead of looking to ruck off a falling ball-carrier, they speed in for the pop-up. Munster will have to be certain about taking players down with the ball.

I would like to make a complaint about Saracens: they have rested Richard Wigglesworth, Mako and Billy Vunipola, Brad Barrett, Ashton, Owen Farrell, Juan Figalo and Jim Hamilton out of their starters for today's game against Northampton. We were told that the Irish provinces spent too much time resting their senior players and not taking their league seriously. Are Saracens having a laugh against Northampton, putting out a very weakened side to make sure that their senior side will be fresh? Meritocracy?

It is interesting though that George Kruis is starting today after missing the entire Six Nations; a fresh Kruis will do damage next Saturday. Schalk Burger also starts and he may be a key player in Saracens' battle for ascendancy at the tackle zone. However, it is his fellow South African Michael Rhodes who may be the key player in the entire game. I fully expect Peter O'Mahony to be named in the Lions party on Wednesday but I think Saracens will go after him and in blindside Rhodes they have a guy who is tough enough and big enough and has enough lineout ability to pressurise the Munster talisman. That battle will be absolutely crucial.

What is also of key importance is how and when CJ Stander and Conor Murray return to the Munster side. I saw Murray get injured on March 10 in Cardiff, and then to have it explained to me that it was just a stinger… well forgive my reluctance to believe some of the bullshit that comes out on official medical bulletins. A 37-day stinger! The stakes are very high here. Angus Lloyd looks to be a very handy player and Duncan Williams could do a job but for Munster to win, Murray must be on the field and fully fit and play as well as he did throughout the Six Nations.

Stander looks like he will start but it may not be that he is 100-per-cent fit and so Munster start on the back foot. I feel the team that plays better without the ball will win. Saracens in a tough pool only conceded six tries; Munster, though, leaked only four and if they can keep this defensive excellence going and be sure of their set-piece they have a great chance.

We don't know how Saracens will react to being hit as hard as they are going to be hit; they will not have played a match of such intensity in such a feral theatre and they will be put under pressure the like of which they have not experienced in a long time.

I have never wanted a team from the Premiership to be beaten so badly and I have never wanted Munster to win more. I will be at the Aviva on Saturday wearing red. Lunster for a day!

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