Friday 23 February 2018

Neil Francis: Dogs of war were fast asleep in an embarrassing performance

Munster players including Tommy O'Donnell, centre, following their defeat in the Guinness PRO12 Final between Munster and Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Munster players including Tommy O'Donnell, centre, following their defeat in the Guinness PRO12 Final between Munster and Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Dave Kilcoyne, Billy Holland, and Peter O'Mahony of Munster react after the Guinness PRO12 Final between Munster and Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Well Leinster found out the hard way last week - the excuse was in the bank and earning interest - would Munster show the sort of poise, intelligence and commitment required to get past what we knew was a very good footballing team?

A 46-22 score line does not do justice to the quality of this Scarlets side. Even if Munster were up for it and were biting at the clutch they still wouldn't have beaten a Scarlets side that were primed to win and were light years ahead in footballing intelligence and intent.

It was troubling that Munster were so far off the pace and it is worthy of some form of forensic examination. For a side with such heritage to not show up was deeply disappointing for Irish rugby. You could ignore the evidence of the Leinster video and do what Munster do well 'cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.' The dogs of war were asleep and they were so lacking in the gumption and desire which you would normally associate with the province that questions have to be asked as to why there was such a gap between the sides.

In the 60th minute Mark Taylor, the Scarlets' skills coach, was asked for his views - the game was over at this stage and he could speak freely - he said "we built momentum and we peaked at the right time."

When Leinster put 45 points on the Scarlets back in March that comment might have needed to be examined by a psychiatrist, but Scarlets were primed to win their knock-out games. They were sharp to the quick. They oozed freshness and commitment. They were alive to possibilities. They were the embodiment of adaptability and mentally they were sharper than any team that they played over the last two months.

Their passing skills were the best in the Guinness PRO12 and as a footballing side, when they decide to play they can cut you to shreds. Defensively, though, was where they won the game.

If you look at the bones of this defeat - the stats will tell you very little. Once again, as they did in the Leinster game, Scarlets survived on less than 40 per cent possession and field position but the quality of their line speed was evident in all the major moments of this game. They were so quick off the line and their two centres in particular made Munster's mid-field pairing look like amateurs.

They preyed on Francis Saili all day. The departing Kiwi was a liability and his unsympathetic off-loads, his turnovers and his complete lack of awareness in the outside channels were an embarrassment. He came up too quickly in the early engagements and then too slowly when his teammates had a word with him. Line speed is purely a mental thing. A team that concentrates, keeps its systems right and forces itself to come up in a line at great speed is one that will win matches and Munster chasing the game from early on just could not get anything going behind.

To illustrate how far Munster were off the pace you didn't have to look further than the 36th minute.

Conor Murray made a break on the periphery of a ruck. He stepped his way out of a couple of tackles and was looking to arc and maybe make a connection with some supporting players. A quick look out of the corner of his eyes told him that there was nobody with him and apart from stopping he had very little by way of options to keep the move alive.

When Patchel's tackle went in there were eight Llanelli players closer to Murray and not one Munster player had the wit, conviction or desire to get with their scrum-half. Murray would have been pinged for holding on and he had to throw the ball back six or seven metres just so that Munster would retain. It told you everything about where Munster were.

In terms of tempo, Munster were adagio, the Scarlets a fairly spicy allegro and the west Walian feint and ability to run straight and get with any line breaker was again one of the things that separated the sides. The best example of this was the Scarlets' second try when Jonathan Davies and Steff Evans connected with each other several times in a dazzling break down the left hand side. There seemed to be no end to their commitment to support the ball carrier.

They say the mind always fails first but why were Munster so lacking in sharpness? Is it that the national team's fitness and conditioning coaches want their tourists to peak in June? You could not say that Munster were over-trained in the weeks lead up to the final. They looked sharp and fresh against the Ospreys, surely in the space of a week the Munster coaching ticket would not have run the sap out of them to such a degree?

All of their key players and go-to men were again absent on the line. Stander had yet again another very poor afternoon. The admirable Peter O'Mahony, a true champion for the Reds, had another low key performance. Tommy O'Donnell, who had a big game last Saturday, was hauled off early in the second half.

Llanelli were so good at the tackle scene and the amount of ball that they pilfered just should not have happened in a final and the Scarlets buccaneering back row won the day on the ground. It is interesting to observe that nearly all of Scarlets' outfield players were intensely competitive in the tackle. Liam Williams was top of the heap.

Once again, in the space of a week, Aaron Shingler, Johnny Barclay and the highly impressive James Davies completely out-manoeuvred, out-thought and out-fought their vaunted opponents.

Llanelli were quite content to win ball at two all day long. Leinster forward coach please take note - you can play football from ball won at the front. Leinster forward coach please also take note that you should try and get Tadgh Beirne back from Scarlets as soon as is practicable. Ireland forwards coach please note that Tadgh Beirne is twice the player that Quinn Roux is.

DTH van der Merwe's try was an embarrassment and it is rare that I have seen Munster players flunk tackles, no matter what the predicament the match is in. Munster's pressure game never came to the fore and it is of very little value when you are 22 points down. A bad end to the Irish domestic season where both champion provinces were completely tactically out-played and out-thought. A sobering defeat.

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