Tuesday 22 October 2019

Neil Francis: 'Munster's lack of creativity could stop them going much further'

Tyler Bleyendaal, left, and Alby Mathewson of Munster celebrate after Munster beat Exeter
Tyler Bleyendaal, left, and Alby Mathewson of Munster celebrate after Munster beat Exeter
Exeter Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Coming into this game you got the impression that Exeter sensed opportunity. Many other English teams may have thought the same but Exeter are a different breed. Coming to Thomond is a test of manhood; teams that just come out and play like they had nothing to lose inevitably, in fact, lose.

The absence of alternatives concentrates the mind. Exeter would have to spill blood, man up and go well outside their comfort zone. They had a plan, too, and they had done their homework. Rob Baxter has a methodical mind and like most clever coaches, he realised that fronting up wasn't the only thing they would have to do: they would have to be clever in the face of hostility and actually execute the game plan.

In the first half they soaked up pressure, got to Munster at the breakdown, looked after the ball and played continuous rugby on an evening which allowed a team to play football. The murderous intensity and speed at which they got into the ruck reminded the hosts that the Chiefs were not here as the runner-up in another Munster procession.

The scrum was another area where every set was a meaty encounter, although Exeter came off second best in the first half. The West Country side, though, did not lack ambition and were confident of their close-in maul, realising that kicking penalties in Thomond Park is a pointless exercise.

They had also done their homework on Peter O'Mahony getting dummy jumpers into the air, forcing Munster to throw to the top of his jump and then edging the ball off him when he was on the way down.

The quality of their maul when they got their first try told you that this would be a difficult encounter. Exeter comfortably held on to the ball and were able to chew up large amounts of the clock, while Munster defended with conviction but left holes along their line and were susceptible to the chip in behind.

Johan van Graan had homework to do at half-time.

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The cut and thrust of the second half was compelling, yet nobody was willing to trust themselves and it was rugby of the lowest common denominator. Box-kicking is a low-risk, sanitised version of the game and if you cannot trust yourself in possession, then kick it 30 yards into the air and chase for all you are worth.

In fairness all the scrum-halves excelled with their box-kicking as Munster met a side who weren't afraid of them and who defended stoutly and with intelligence.

So no tries for Munster and their midfield still aren't able to hold a line or pass with enough menace so that their dangerous back three can work something. Joey Carbery, after running the show against Gloucester, got swallowed up in the intensity of this game. Watching him play for Munster is like a chance encounter with Molly Malone selling Union Jacks on Henry Street - it still doesn't seem right.

The brave and the faithful will be happy with the three penalties he banged over but once again there are questions about Munster's creativity in tight games. The job was done, but Thomond was quiet for large parts of this game and you have to ask, is this a side who can get out of the quarters and win a semi-final?

The subtle distinction observed here is that contenders require the ability to think again or change direction. Exeter required the perfect performance and they had the game plan, but real champions make those little moments count; instead the two or three opportunities were snatched at and then they were gone.

Exeter kept themselves lean with desire but you need a little bit more than that in Thomond and although they had cutting edge they just could not place themselves in a position to take advantage. Although the English side led 7-6 all the way to the 72nd minute, you felt that a pyrrhic victory was not really what they were there for. Beating Munster in Thomond so that you can say that you did it may be a useful building block, or another step up the ladder, but the bottom line is that Exeter are out. A terrible shame to expend all that energy and endeavour and come up short.

As for Ulster, you reckoned that after the first half in Welford Road, dry throat had set in and that they would spurn another opportunity to sup at the top table. Too many mistakes, too many turnovers and a bad case of 'Leinsteritis' when they got in to scoring positions - particularly at lineout time. Rory Best and Iain Henderson conspired to turn over three or four lineout balls and they compounded the errors by giving away silly penalties after the turnover.

Thankfully, Ulster's recovery came from the introduction of John Cooney. The scrum-half looked sharp and fully match fit to me and I cannot understand why he did not start. He gave control, guidance, assurance and sang froid to everybody around him, and from an Irish perspective the 25 minutes he played demonstrated that he will cope admirably with the pressures of international rugby. I have no doubt that he will be named as Conor Murray's deputy for the England game in two weeks. That is if Murray's neck is in good enough condition to start.

Marty Moore's flop over from a very well-constructed maul gave Ulster hope at 13-7, but they had to continue the pressure and for once one of the ill-advised chips sent through by Billy Burns hopped up nicely.

A one in six return for the chip, through, is a pretty low average, but it just about worked out and Ulster were able to eat up the clock without giving away any silly penalties in the last five minutes.

All of this marshalled by the calming influence of Cooney. Ruan Pienaar, who we all thought was irreplaceable, will be watching from the side-lines with Montpellier as they failed to get the better of Edinburgh.

All to do today for Leinster.

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