Tuesday 20 February 2018

Tony Ward: Munster's old dogged spirit back on display

Reds rediscover their intensity but selection issues remain as Erasmus saga rumbles on

Dave Kilcoyne gets himself and Munster on the front foot during their drawn game against Castres. Photo: Getty Images
Dave Kilcoyne gets himself and Munster on the front foot during their drawn game against Castres. Photo: Getty Images
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It was out of character for a Champions Cup tie, particularly one involving Munster and in France, yet this latest clash with Castres all but died a death in the final quarter.

In the end it appeared both sides were content with the outcome, yet Munster were probably the more relieved to come away with a share of the spoils in a Pool 4 game which could easily have gone either way.

Despite all I am hearing about the new attacking dimension to Munster's game this season, I simply can't see it. What I do see is a return to the Munster ways of old, which is no bad thing.

It is a strategy for Europe built around patience, but is not without its faults, given that Conor Murray, who shipped a yellow card, and Simon Zebo, who should also have spent time in the bin, might each have conceded a penalty try in the opening phase.

There were also moments of madness from Dave Kilcoyne, who otherwise had an outstanding game, and Robin Copeland in the dying minutes. Kilcoyne came into a ruck from the side and Copeland foolishly knocked the ball from the scrum-half's hands.

Had Copeland's transgression been penalised (quite how the referee read a knock-on is beyond me) it would have surely given Castres the win. It would have represented a bitter pill for Munster to swallow as, for the second week running, they were guilty of indiscipline and instead of questioning the match official, this time they should be thanking their lucky stars.

Despite all that, there was still an old-style doggedness about this Munster performance. Even Peter O'Mahony's curt response, with accompanying dagger looks, to Reggie Corrigan's question on TG4 the previous week showed the fire is burning.

This display smacked of composure, if not quite the full substance, from the days of old. There was a greater urgency and a much higher level of intensity compared to last week.

The decision to run with Stephen Archer instead of John Ryan was more than justified given Archer's all-round contribution in the time he was on. All three front rowers - Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell and Archer - were outstanding, while O'Mahony was back in that inspirationally destructive groove.

As for Murray, he is quite simply a different class. Beyond that, Rory Scannell and Simon Zebo were the pick of the backs.

Scannell's low centre of gravity enables him to eke out precious yards and forward momentum when space is at a premium. He also offers a left-footed option to his out-half, whether it be Tyler Bleyendaal, Ian Keatley or indeed JJ Hanrahan. I still fail to comprehend what appears to be an open and shut case in favour of Bleyendaal at 10.

There is still a lack of creativity in midfield, although Scannell the younger definitely offers that possibility. Zebo is a shining light and while I am a fan of Darren Sweetnam and appreciate his George North-like potential, I feel a combination of Andrew Conway at full-back with Keith Earls on the right and Zebo on the left (with freedom to roam) offers the best back three combination.

Whether Rassie Erasmus, or more specifically Johann van Graan, likes it or not, the out-half position is anything but a fait accompli.

Only Munster management know who is training best behind closed doors, but at this distance it looks like it could be any one from Bleyendaal, Keatley and Hanrahan to face Racing on Saturday. That is not a good place to be. Thank God for Murray.

His pass missing out Rory Scannell for Zebo's try was simple but sublime in its vision and execution.

And please can we be spared this ongoing speculation as to when Erasmus is leaving. What do you expect players to say when questioned about the current coach or indeed his successor? This King will soon abdicate; long live the new King.

And in the event of there being a delay in Van Graan getting his work permit then I would appeal to the powers that be to send the current coaching duo on their way regardless.

Of course the players will portray a happy working environment to the public, but what is going on at present is madness. Munster Rugby is so much better than that.

The saga is doing nobody any favours and despite O'Mahony et al saying all the right things, it is good neither for morale nor confidence in the camp.

To that end, coming away from Stade Pierre-Fabre with an even split given what transpired is remarkable.

A try-saving tackle in either corner in the second-half, allied to those two penalty try decisions in the first and the total Copeland cop-out at the end made for a Munster glass very much half full on the long journey home.

Halcyon

On the back of this result the Munster challenge for 2018 is up and running. Think how often in the past, even in the halcyon days, Munster lost that opening game on the road, particularly in France or England.

Thomond will be heaving for the arrival of Ronan O'Gara and Racing. There are still issues in the second row, at out-half, at second centre plus that of the optimum balance in the back three.

Can I respectfully suggest that whatever decisions are to be made in relation to those shirts, that it is Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones with the biggest say.

Quite frankly I don't really care when Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber are leaving, but for the sake of Munster and this Champions Cup campaign I hope it is sooner rather than later.

Had Castres a reliable goalkicker other than Benjamin Urdapilleta in their ranks, this game would have had a different outcome.

As for Matthew Carley, his assistant referees and TMO, quite how they read that hand trip from Murray, the deliberate knock down by Zebo, not to mention Copeland's act of lunacy, defies logic.

Castres have every reason to be incensed.

Irish Independent

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