Tuesday 24 October 2017

Team has more to offer than this

Quick response is required to kick-start push for league title

Simon Zebo skips past Saracens’ Brad Barritt at Allianz Park last week before being forced off early through injury
Simon Zebo skips past Saracens’ Brad Barritt at Allianz Park last week before being forced off early through injury
Simon Zebo leaves the pitch with an injury after being substituted

David Wallace

It is a huge disappointment for everyone involved in Munster to have their Champions Cup campaign ended before the end of January - but last Saturday was a day when nothing seemed to go right for them.

Right from the team announcement, the omens were bad. Conor Murray missed out through injury and there was no back-up scrum-half on the bench, then CJ Stander limped off early on, but it was the mistakes that cost Munster in the end. There were too many knock-ons, turnovers and errors. Saracens were clinical and would have got a bonus point if they were more ruthless.

Credit has to go to Sarries for the way they executed their game plan. In the first 20 to 25 minutes Munster just couldn't seem to get a foothold in their half and, as we mentioned last week, the kicking game needed to be spot on. Sarries won that battle.

Without Murray in the team, there was a lot of pressure on Duncan Williams to perform and, in fairness to him, I think he did well. His box-kicking was good apart from the first one which was a bit long, but Saracens consistently kept Munster on the hind foot, and that made it tough to get out of the 22.

Munster tried to downplay the significance of playing on the 4G surface ahead of the game, but it clearly had an effect. Judging the length of kicks was difficult at times, but the lack of grip underfoot at the scrum meant that the Saracens' bulk won over the technique of the Munster pack.

On one occasion Ian Keatley looked to have landed a sweet kick into Saracens territory but it seemed to roll on for an eternity, and eventually carried on over the dead-ball line. That came all the way back for a Sarries scrum and on such things games can turn.

There was no disguising the fact that Munster were second best, but it can be hard to execute when games turn against you. I don't know whether the lads panicked or not, but making mistakes and seeing things go wrong certainly sucks the confidence out of a team.

It will be tough for Munster to lift themselves for Sunday's visit of Sale Sharks to Thomond Park, but it is vital that they steady the ship as soon as possible.

Toughest

I was never a fan of excuses, but it has to be said this was the toughest European pool that I can remember. We certainly never got anything as hard as it in my time and I think Munster would have qualified from any of the other groups this year.

Thinking back to when we were in a similar situation after losing to Toulon in the 2010-'11 season, things didn't feel great for us either. We were out of the Heineken Cup and faced London Irish in a dead rubber the following week at Thomond.

We managed to take a bonus-point win from that game and it was the kick-start our campaign needed. We went on to win the Rabo after that, so having a target like that is very important for all the lads. Their season is far from over.

There has been plenty of tickets sold for Sunday's game already so hopefully we see a good crowd in attendance. It is pretty important that the lads go out and restore a bit of pride in the shirt too, especially on their own turf in front of their own people. The last thing they want is another poor outing with a two-week break to the next game.

One worry for the long term is how CJ Stander recovers from that ankle injury. He didn't look too comfortable when he came off, so hopefully with three weeks off until he is needed again, he'll be okay to play against Cardiff at the first Munster game in the new Irish Independent Park.

Conor Murray's fitness will also concern Munster and Ireland, while everyone will also be watching to see if Simon Zebo is okay for this weekend and for Ireland's Six Nations campaign.

But there were positives in recent games too. It's great to see Keith Earls back again, while the return of James Cronin and the impending return of Dave Kilcoyne will add a bit of bulk to the pack. Kilcoyne showed earlier this season what an important player he is for Munster. He is a very powerful ball-carrier and scrummager, so he'll be needed in the coming weeks - especially if Stander faces a lengthy lay-off.

But first the lads need a win on Sunday. Any win will give them a lift, but a convincing victory can be the catalyst to a good finish to the season.

Claims that Paulie is past it after one poor match are plainly ridiculous

There will be no-one more disappointed after the weekend's defeat in Saracens than Paul O'Connell, but claims that he is past his best are very wide of the mark.

It is only a couple of months ago that we were applauding his form for Ireland against Australia and South Africa.

So for some people to say he is no longer able for the rough and tumble of the game at this level is clearly just wrong. All of lads in the squad will be beating themselves up about their performances last Saturday against Saracens.

But I think a lot of it stemmed from the frustration that things were just not going well for the side.

I have no doubt Paulie (right) is the man to lead Irish pack into the defence of their Six Nations crown in the coming weeks and again later this year going into the World Cup in England.

Fair enough, things did not go well for him last weekend, but he was not on his own in that department.

It was just one of those days but the reality in sport is that you are going to have those sort of occasions and it is a matter of dealing with them.

He made a few mistakes - most of them when the result was beyond doubt - but I don't think it was for lack of effort.

Some days it just goes wrong for you: we've all have had those days on the pitch when it just does not happen.

A good performance next week from everyone against Sale Sharks in Thomond Park will lift Munster.

And I have no doubt that Paulie will be a key leader for Ireland this year.

Irish Independent

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