Wednesday 13 December 2017

Neil Francis: Until Munster get a big-name outhalf, they are going nowhere

Until they get an outhalf who can control the game and convert the kicks, they are going nowhere

'Leicester provoked the ire of most of the people in Thomond last weekend. They got away with murder on a couple of counts but generally they were far smarter and a good deal sharper in thought' Photo: PA Wire
'Leicester provoked the ire of most of the people in Thomond last weekend. They got away with murder on a couple of counts but generally they were far smarter and a good deal sharper in thought' Photo: PA Wire
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A good while ago I went to see Kevin Bloody Wilson at the Olympia Theatre. It was bluer than even I could have expected.

He's the man who penned such classics as 'I gave up w**king this morning', 'Santa Claus you c**t where's me fu**ing bike' and 'The Pubic Hair Song.' The guitar-playing Australian balladeer was about 15 minutes through his set when an elderly couple and their middle-aged daughter got up from their seats to go home. Maybe what they had anticipated was an Antipodean Val Doonican and a bit of an ould sing-song. As they climbed the stairs, Wilson stopped his set and shouted out, "Oy." The trio stopped and turned around. "What the f**k did you expect?"

The reaction to Munster's limp performance last week was one where I thought people wanted to vent their frustration but very early on these feelings gave way to apathy. Whatever about Munster's failings on the pitch - and there were many - what had they expected from Leicester? Had the Munster faithless forgotten who was coming to town?

This was the team that had cheated them out of the 2002 Heineken Cup, a club with a great tradition. But not many people like them in England. They are insular, self-obsessed and they will do anything, practically anything, to win. They are a cynical side, they are niggly at every point of contact. They do not play by the rules of Queensbury, they are not gentlemen racers and they are versed in the arts of cutting corners with the rules of the game. It is almost a Fagin's 15. As a song in the movie went, "Who says crime doesn't pay? You've got to pick a pocket or two."

Leicester provoked the ire of most of the people in Thomond last weekend. They got away with murder on a couple of counts but generally they were far smarter and a good deal sharper in thought. One of the things that struck me about Leicester's performance was that you could say that they didn't do much to win the match. They didn't have much of the ball and they didn't spend a huge amount of time in Munster's half. After the match was over you would ask the question, how did they earn this result? About five opportunities and three converted - some of them handed to them on a plate - but you can add that clinical, cynical Leicester deserved to win and will win far more convincingly today.

If you look at how Leicester played, again you would have to ask the question: who do they remind you of? A certain team in red perhaps? Munster, when they were good, had this amazing facility where it seemed like they weren't doing much on the park and yet when it came to vital junctures they just seemed to be able to put points on the board without being particularly dominant.

Leicester used tactics which we are used to seeing from Munster. That rolling maul in the 32nd minute which led to Vereniki Goneva's try was a thing of beauty - really low body angles, all the players in the maul were really tight, as tight as a scrum even, and their dynamism just blew the Munster eight away. The term 'eight' is probably a misnomer because there was only ever three or four Munster players in the maul. I'm not sure what the others were doing hanging off, waiting for something to happen.

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I have very rarely seen a team humiliate a Munster pack in such a fashion. It did happen back in 2007, and again inflicted by the same opposition who gave a tour de force with Leo Cullen in the van against a very strong Munster pack.

One of the things we expect from Munster packs is that they observe the fundamentals. The gift from an overthrown ball over the back to Michael Fitzgerald might have seemed careless but it is a pointer to where some of Munster's problems lie.

We know that Paul O'Connell doesn't call the lineouts anymore and his exemplar personality is conspicuous by its absence on and off the park, and yet we took for granted his ability to do simple things (not that simple) like organising a lineout. The gift of experience means that when you call a short lineout near your own five-metre line you don't get bullied or pressured. It was tuppenny ha'penny antics from Leicester - get the ball in, get the ball in - creeping a foot over the mark, tightening their formation on the line - but it worked and Munster were pressured off their ball on their line. A real sickener to concede such a cheap try at such a crucial moment but what did we expect? Leicester thrive on the pressure game; they hand it out and they can take it.

Their scrum will be the conduit for their victory today. It is rare that you see a loosehead throttle back and upset an opposition scrum. BJ Botha recovered himself somewhat in the second half but I just think that Leicester will squeeze Munster for the full 80 today because they know they can do it. Munster's scrum is far from a liability but can they trust it to stand up to what is coming this afternoon?

I watched the Leicester v Stade Francais game at Welford Road. Despite their slow start to the season, Stade are a very decent side and put up a pretty good performance, but once again without Leicester either dominating or looking like they were going to run away with it, they still managed to get a bonus-point victory. One of the keys to that performance was their three Kiwi Paddies - Brendan O'Connor, Lachlann McCaffrey and Michael Fitzgerald. Never heard of them before, nowhere near what you would call a marquee set of recruits, yet highly effective players and shrewd signings. O'Connor in particular is stand-out. Despite all of the huffing and puffing from Stander, Copeland and co, the Leicester back-row controlled proceedings in Thomond and will do so again today.

I know it's a bit away, but the Ben Youngs versus Conor Murray head-to-head was informative for the 2017 Lions. Murray looked rusty and a little bit out of sorts. Youngs showed the sort of wit which will establish him as England's starter next year. The difference between the two of them, though, lay in the quality of the ball that was presented. Youngs had very little pressure applied to him at the breakdown and the quality and presentation of the ball was first-class - he just whipped it away and Leicester were off. Murray looked like he was trying to take a snail out of his salad.

And so to the crux of the matter. Ian Keatley had a shocker and Munster have a decision to make. I thought Sexton was far poorer in the Toulon game last week and that is saying something. I have always felt that if Keatley had one bad game it would take 10 good ones before the Munster crowd would forgive him. It is easy to blame him for everything that went wrong but his key weakness is a lack of authority. He is unquestionably a handy footballer, but this Munster team is so lacking in leadership that the outhalf they choose, the guy who executes the game plan, has to be somebody who carries the team.

His kicking and his tackling on the day were so bad that you would have to ask the question: was there an underlying problem? Keatley is an 80 per cent kicker and he occasionally misses crucial kicks - kicks that would make every spectator in Thomond Park mutter, "Rog would have got that one." If Keatley is to survive at this level his kicking needs to be significantly better and more reliable. I can't account for his tackling performance. He is a brave player and does not generally shirk his responsibilities but his missed tackles on Goneva and Ben Youngs were unpardonable.

Where do Munster look? I don't think Ian Madigan will be leaving Leinster this year and so we look at Tyler Bleyendaal. I watched him play for the Baby Blacks in the 2010 Junior World Cup finals in Argentina. He captained and guided an exceptional All Blacks side which included Julian Savea and Tawera Kerr-Barlow, both of whom played in the recent World Cup final.

That team laid waste to everybody they met on their way to the final and they beat a pretty good Australian side 62-17. The New Zealanders know fairly early on whether one of their prospects will play for the All Blacks and they are ruthless in telling you if you're not good enough. And so, at 25 and after a year out with a neck injury, we wait for Bleyendaal to see if he can rescue a bad situation.

Outhalves with career-threatening neck injuries might not be the defensive hub that you need in the big matches. Bleyendaal replaced Dan Carter when the superstar was going through his injury hiatus. He was an effective replacement, did well for the Crusaders and can run a back line and control a game. He is also good under pressure. Yet since he came on against Treviso on September 5 we have barely seen him. If he got some game time he could be the man, but if he is injured or only playing intermittently then it could be time to cut and run.

Munster need a big-name outhalf who can nurse his side forward, make the big decisions, get his kicks and do what an outhalf is paid to do. Until they get one Munster are going nowhere. I think they will be competitive today but they will lose and I cannot see them beating Stade in Paris. Like Leinster, they should focus on the Pro12 and a return to form in that competition before they set their sights a little higher.

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