Thursday 19 September 2019

Room for improvement in interpros, but Euro loss will be difficult to digest

Tommy O'Donnell. Photo: Sportsfile
Tommy O'Donnell. Photo: Sportsfile

David Wallace

A win last weekend in France would have all but secured top spot in Pool 2 for Munster, but now they face a real battle to reach the quarter-finals. It will be tough, but I still think they'll get there.

One thing for sure, they will see this game as the one that got away. Conditions were awful and favoured this physical Castres team. It was real arm wrestle at the breakdown, but crucially I think when he looks back at his performance referee Wayne Barnes will be disappointed.

Castres certainly got away with murder at the breakdown, but there was a few incidents that he didn't take control of either.

Pressure

For Castres's try, it was certainly debatable whether they got downward pressure on the ball, maybe the ball was grounded but was it in anyone's hands? There was huge doubt there.

But forget about the referee for a minute - regardless of the officiating, Munster still had the chances to win. They missed four of their eight kicks at goal, they didn't convert the two try-scoring chances that came their way and it was costly.

The quick-tap penalty before half-time is maybe something they'll regret; sometimes you just need to kick the easy points and accept that you've been hard done by.

The one saving grace is that Munster are still well ahead in the pool, but with two games to go it's all to play for the group, and with four points separating all four teams it will go right to the wire.

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Away to Gloucester next up is a really tough test while Exeter at home in the final game will be another colossal battle.

And if you look across the other four pools, all the leaders have more points than Munster right now and the second-placed team in three of the pools are ahead of Munster too.

At this stage it's safe to say only the group winners will qualify from Pool 2, so there is no room for mistakes from now on.

So where can Munster improve before they return to European action in the new year? They have Ulster in Belfast this evening, Leinster at Thomond Park next weekend, and Connacht at the Sportsground a week before they go to Kingsholm. In all three games their breakdown work will be severely tested.

Castres broke every rule in the breakdown book last weekend and it is probably unfair to pick on Munster's work last weekend, but, in general, there have been occasions where they have been caught out this season.

If you compare them to Ireland there is a definite gap in their overall ruck security. Joe Schmidt insists on accuracy at the breakdown, everyone has to do their share of the work and the ball-carrier has to be immediately supported by a powerful, accurate clean-out. I don't know if there's a little disconnect or a lack of accuracy, but a small improvement there would deliver a great return in my opinion. You can bet your life the three provinces will have identified it as a way to attack Munster, so they'll have plenty of practice time there over Christmas, which is a good thing.

First up now is tonight's trip to Ravenhill and it's probably the toughest time of the season to face them. Back-to-back bonus point wins over Scarlets shows Dan McFarland's side are purring nicely after a shaky start to the season, and with them already in joint second place in Conference B, they will fancy their chances of reaching the knockout stages.

Certainly, this will be a really tough game for Munster but the only issue I see with Ulster at the moment is their strength in depth. Both sides have rested players for this game, but so much of Ulster's improvement centred around the return of all their internationals.

On the other hand, Munster showed excellent form during November when they were shorn of their top stars. The likes of Alby Mathewson, Arno Botha, Jean Kleyn, Conor Oliver, Tommy O'Donnell, Tyler Bleyendaal and so many more will play big roles in the coming weeks, and I don't see them weakening the Munster side either.

Whatever way it finishes tonight, the Leinster game next week is the big one for many people and even during the Champions Cup build-up there was plenty of talk going around in anticipation for this one.

But first thing's first - this will be a real toil in Ravenhill, but I think Munster have the tools to bounce back from last weekend's disappointment.

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