No faulting Munster's effort, but European loss has to be turning point for this squad
I'm sure much of this week has been about lifting the spirits of players who were involved last weekend against Saracens, but despite that disappointing loss there is no need for doom and gloom in the province. There is so much to play for in the remainder of the season and I still think Munster can finish on a high.
I attended the Munster Rugby awards night on Tuesday and despite Saturday's loss it was a very positive event. One thing I was reminded of on the night was that Munster have reached the top four in Europe for the last three years.
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That achievement needs to be respected and appreciated. There is a lot of expectation in the province but we have to appreciate that very few teams in Europe are hitting those heights.
If Munster are to end the season on a high, I think tomorrow's game against Connacht will be key. Results-wise Munster need a win, and if other results go their way they can then earn a vital home semi-final.
But aside from the result, it's important that the disappointment of the Saracens game is put to one side. There is always a danger that after the excitement of European semi-final that the season could fizzle out pretty quickly if the mindset is not right straight away. But I think Munster will be hungry for silverware and will be on song and deliver a victory in this one.
Against Saracens, it felt like Munster were on the ropes at times in the first half. They hung in there but Saracens kept the scoreboard ticking over. Once the first try went in after the break it was always going to be hard to catch them from there on.
Despite the significant loss of Joey Carbery and Keith Earls, I was happy to see a bit more variety in Munster's approach last weekend. I thought they ran at space a little bit more but they just didn't have enough possession.
There was a lot of smart rugby from Saracens, particularly the way they targeted the influence of Tadhg Beirne. A lot of it was illegal and it was ironic that Beirne was then penalised for a very soft penalty at the breakdown.
Misalignment For the majority of the game Munster's defence was excellent, but there was one or two errors there too, some knock-ons and poor reads, but you really couldn't fault the effort of the players. Last week we spoke the importance of getting the defensive line reset and that's exactly what happened for Saracens' first try. There was a misalignment between Munster's pillar defender and the player in the post position, two out from the ruck. It was a defensive system error - you have to know your defensive roles off by heart - but it came about due to big Saracens pressure in the previous phases.
I still think there is room for more urgency at the breakdown too. These are easy fixes though. At the level Munster are operating at it would be very hard to get a ten per cent improvement in fitness or work-rate from this team, but it might be possible to get an edge defensively and at the breakdown.
Munster haven't played against a team like Saracens in a long time and how they coped should be used as a litmus test to help them improve. You can identify the areas that were taken advantage of by Sarries, and that knowledge is priceless if a team wants to get better at what they don't do well. It has to be their roadmap for the seasons ahead.
The big positive ahead of the weekend is that there is so much to play for. Munster can still finish in top spot and they'll be going all guns blazing to beat Connacht and give themselves a chance. Glasgow need to beat Edinburgh to seal first place, but their recent record against their Scottish rivals is very poor with Edinburgh winning five of the last six meetings.
Connacht had a week off last weekend and might look at this as a chance to gain some momentum for a charge at the play-offs. When the sides met at the Sportsground earlier on, it was one of Munster's best performances of the season, but, of all teams, Connacht place huge value on the chance to beat Munster in Thomond Park having only done it once. They will come down and look to finish their season on a high.
A lot of it will depend on the teams selected for this one. It will say a lot about Connacht's mindset if they come down fully loaded. Resting players is a dangerous path to tread.
Coming down from the high of a European semi-final can be hard. Sometimes you might not be fully focused on the game after Europe, so that mental build-up will have to have been expedited in the last few days. It's a massive game in Munster's season.