Thursday 24 October 2019

Tony Ward: Munster's snail-paced attack has me yearning for days when Peter Stringer was pass master

Former Munster player Peter Stringer. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Former Munster player Peter Stringer. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Given the build-up of injuries the weekend break could hardly have been better timed, particularly for the Six Nations countries with fewer playing numbers such as ourselves, the Italians and the Scots.

However, from an Irish perspective it was a weekend of PRO14 matches best forgotten.

It was a particularly disappointing weekend for Connacht and Munster. It wasn't just that both lost but it was much more the manner of their defeats.

Traditionally this and the November Test window have been a time when Connacht have prospered but against Michael Bradley's Zebre they were almost listless, which even in bad times is just not the Connacht way, particularly at the Sportsground.

The fact that it was a first double by the Italian franchise says it all.

For Ulster and newly-installed head coach Jono Gibbes, the losing run continues.

In their defence they battled for the full 80 before falling to the last kick of the game.

Richard Cockerill deserves credit for the Tiger mentality he has installed in Edinburgh.

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When Ulster have been at full strength they have still looked fragile at the Kingspan.

Signing Jordi Murphy is a great piece of business for player and province but the main concern is in bolstering the tight five.

The elephant in the room is the link at halfback and while John Cooney has stepped up to the mark, so much so that I think it fair to suggest him a nap for Ulster Player of the Year, the loss of Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson has proved critical.

Much was made in playing terms of Christian Leali'ifano's short time in Belfast. He brought footballing nous but a game-managing out-half in the David Humphreys/Jackson mould he is not. That gaping void has still to be filled, although Johnny McPhillips had been showing signs in recent weeks that he could make that leap.

He swapped between out-half and full-back at U-20 with Ireland depending on Jacob Stockdale's availability but against Edinburgh, up until injury, there was a fluidity to the back line interlinked with the sensible use of the boot that has been marked by its absence this season.

Forget all this nonsense about interchanging first receivers, there is still one first receiver and his positional moniker is out-half.

The injury to McPhillips looked ominous but hopefully Dwayne Peel and Niall Malone look no further than the Newcastle-born naturalised Ulster man to fill that playmaking void.

In an ideal world - as with Johnny Sexton alongside Felipe Contepomi in his early days at Leinster - it would have been hugely advantageous to have Leali'ifano perform a similar mentoring role for McPhillips.

With James Lowe again to the fore it was reassuring to see Leinster deliver against the Scarlets. I say reassuring because what followed at Cardiff was depressing.

Take out the third quarter and Munster weren't at the races.

The slow delivery to the backs, allied to that tedious, monotonous, 'Hail Mary' box-kick, sucks the energy out of players and spectators.

Munster possess a different dynamic with Conor Murray at scrum-half but the snail's pace of Duncan Williams and James Hart had me yearning for Peter Stringer.

Letting Stringer go in 2011 (bear in mind he subsequently played for Saracens, Newcastle, Bath, Sale and Worcester) was the most injudicious call taken by any Munster management.

Stringer wasn't the total nine but if there has been a better passing Irish scrum-half then I haven't seen him.

His lack of size was his Achilles heel, restricting his capacity to break, but next to Murray for province and Colin Patterson for country there have been few better.

Maybe I'm getting crotchety but if there's one thing that gets my goat it's this latest craze whereby most scrum-halves now nurse the ball out of the ruck and then let it sit while the referee shouts 'use it'.

The referee never ever does anything about it though, while the scrum-half readies himself for the next paint-drying action; the kick and chase ad nauseam.

It is sucking the life out of the game and Munster are suffering on the back of it. They weren't helped by an indifferent performance from Ian Keatley either.

When he is good, as he has been for most of this season, he is very, very good but when he is bad, he can be awful.

The Munster management must address this self-defeating tactic.

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