Wednesday 21 March 2018

Tony Ward: Too many Munster players going through the motions

Munster players including Dave Foley, Conor Murray and Mario Sagario show their disappointment after the defeat to Stade Francais Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Munster players including Dave Foley, Conor Murray and Mario Sagario show their disappointment after the defeat to Stade Francais Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

A weekend comprising of two wins and two losses but let's cut to the chase and specifically to Stade Jean Bouin where on Saturday afternoon Munster produced what was undoubtedly their most limp performance ever in Europe.

I thought we had witnessed that nadir 12 months ago at Allianz Park in London when Saracens inflicted a similarly comprehensive pasting on the back of a 33-10 scoreline. It coincided with, on his own admission, Paul O'Connell's worst performance in red.

In the final dead rubber at Thomond, Sale suffered a 65-10 backlash. It didn't matter a whit, and irrespective of the outcome in Limerick when Stade Francais come to fulfil the reverse fixture this weekend, serious damage has been done.

Like most reasonable rugby folk, I support the principle of indigenous coaches - particularly former players being given the incentive to continue in the professional game.

But there comes a time when those behind the scenes - specifically the Professional Games Committee chaired by John Kelly and including the CEO, team manager and head coach in its eight-man make-up - has to come together and address the current crisis for what it is. This Munster coaching team needs help in terms of immediate expertise and it's readily at hand in Declan Kidney, Michael Bradley or Eddie O'Sullivan. The latter in particular is at a loose end.

Demoralising There is no magic wand or silver bullet but with sensible management the nightmare scenario fast approaching of Munster not qualifying for the Champions Cup next season can be avoided. There is no rugby equivalent of Pep Guardiola and even if there were he sure ain't heading Munster's way.

But back to the specifics of last Saturday's demoralising defeat. On the back of last weekend's performance in Belfast, and given the prize on offer, I felt that Munster could summon the spirit of times past and squeeze out a victory in Paris. How wrong can you be?

In partial mitigation, no coach can legislate for injuries to key players at tighthead, openside and full-back in the opening quarter. BJ Botha and Andrew Conway departed and Tommy O'Donnell followed before the break. That said, with the opposition reduced to 14 on the back of a fully warranted red card, the win was there if they wanted it badly enough. And that's the biggest indictment.

Once key players left, the desire went with them. Save for CJ Stander, who is playing out of his skin, where were the leaders? And as one who has supported both half-backs and their reselection, I was again hugely disappointed.

Conor Murray is not imposing himself, while Ian Keatley for all his more obvious strengths continues to drop the head and with it goes all sense of direction from the pivotal position.

There is a very direct parallel between rugby and soccer in relation to the opening score. With it comes confidence and satisfaction particularly for forwards when translating territorial domination into points. They are getting a quantifiable return on their effort.

Whereas Morne Steyn was virtually blemish-free, Keatley's two penalty misses from two when it really mattered had a demoralising effect. Even when Ronan O'Gara was off-colour in his general play, he was still ultra-reliable in keeping the scoreboard ticking over through phases of crisis. And in O'Gara's absence Paul Warwick was equally so.

I suspect Rory Scannell will be switched to out-half for the reverse fixture but I still believe the back line fielded in Paris to be the best attacking unit available to Anthony Foley at this point in time.

But in terms of national selection Keith Earls and Simon Zebo have done themselves no favours whatsoever. Murray too seems to be just going through the motions at the moment. These guys should be leaders in the side yet apart from Stander and in the absence of Peter O'Mahony, and Donnacha Ryan, O'Donnell too, moral leaders were marked absent.

On past performances, Murray will be the front-runner for Ireland's opening Six Nations game at scrum-half but beyond that, Stander apart, it is difficult to argue the case for any other Munster player.

And on the subject of Six Nations selection, Matt Healy and Stuart McCloskey must be acknowledged as the form options on the left wing and at inside centre. It will be beyond comprehension if that is not the case. Not only has Healy speed to burn, he is an intelligent footballer with the ability to chip, grubber and re-gather at pace. A naturally left-sided player, the Connacht winger is the real deal, while McCloskey is the type of physical centre equally blessed with the delicate off-loading kills for which we have yearned.

The Ulster centre was again at the heart of everything good in the second-half miracle of Oyonnax where I'm sure Les Kiss learned a very valuable lesson regarding selection too.

Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson get the lion's share of the second-half credit for transforming a potential Champions Cup-ending defeat into victory. But the timely introduction of Nick Williams was crucial.

To see first-half bullies being bullied after the break and with Williams at the heart of it was no coincidence. He is going to be a huge loss to Ulster rugby on his transfer next season.

Beyond that, Rory Best (as ever) was outstanding and the leader he needed to be, while Craig Gilroy and Chris Henry along with Jackson are again putting their hands up for Ireland selection.

And what about Kyle McCall? Now there's a bolter.

Irish Independent

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