Monday 16 September 2019

Value of experience makes all the difference as Earls hits sweet notes once again

Keith Earls. Photo: Sportsfile
Keith Earls. Photo: Sportsfile

David Wallace

Big games turn on small moments and Munster bossed those key battles to earn their place in the Champions Cup semi-final, with Saracens to come in a fortnight.

As predicted, it was a massive test of both sides, but thankfully Munster edged victory, a result I think they deserved. They may have been behind in that second half, but the defensive performance - they put in 200 tackles - was outstanding.

Edinburgh tore into them from the start and it needed a few long defensive sets to keep them at bay, epitomised by Jack O'Donoghue's brilliant try-line turnover. That pattern continued right to the end when Arno Botha forced the final turnover with a brilliant double tackle.

Losing Mike Haley in the lead-up, Joey Carbery and O'Donoghue in the first half, Jean Kleyn for a HIA and Tadhg Beirne to the sin-bin was a fair amount of disruption to manage, but I thought they coped really well.

In tight games it's often a moment of brilliance that gets you over the line and Keith Earls delivered two at Murrayfield. He is one of the more senior players and you can see how much he wants more silverware. He showed brilliant quick-thinking for his first try and the talent he showed to finish off the second one, when it was most needed, was incredible.

The value of experience was evident in one of the other quarter-finals, with Ulster falling just short against Leinster. Jacob Stockdale learned a valuable lesson when he knocked on the ball as he tried to place it down one-handed.

I straight away thought back to an incident at Munster training more than ten years ago when I saw it happen. I had scored a try, but I placed the ball down one-handed in a lackadaisical way only to be severely dressed down by one of my team-mates. Even though he was only about 18 years old and ten years younger than me, Keith Earls had no hesitation in pulling me up on it in front of everyone.

We all saw what Earls had to do to make sure he scored the second try. He knew he had to get airborne to avoid being pushed into touch. That tells you how he thinks and how he is such a team player. I'm sure that Stockdale does everything he can for his team-mates too, but it will haunt him for years, and hopefully it's a mistake he won't repeat.

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Edinburgh will certainly be ruing their moments of madness. Henry Pyrgos was foolish in the concession of the penalty in the lead up to Earls' first try. The quick tap and the try was suitable punishment. You can't switch off for a second in cup rugby.

The reversed penalty was one of the turning points too, and no doubt Munster were correctly awarded the penalty, which led to Earls' second try. If the shoe was on the other foot, we'd feel sickened, but we'd have no complaints either.

It remains to be seen how long Carbery will be out for, but with just two weeks to go before they face Saracens it is a worry. Tyler Bleyendaal was excellent when he came on in the last two weeks and I'd say we'll see a bit more of him in the next two games, while JJ Hanrahan and Bill Johnston will also want a run.

Despite the win, Munster will look to improve ahead of Sarries. Their defence is on song but if we remember two years ago, Munster struggled to break them down. I'd like to see a small bit more variety between their own 10-metre line and the 22 - just like Ireland need to. When the game opens up Munster backs have shown their flair, but I'd like to see it from the forwards too. If the pack go in search of contact against Saracens, they're in for a real tough day.

There is no doubting that Munster's picking and jamming is second to none, but come the bigger games with tighter defences you may need a bit more variety to unlock them.

The next couple of PRO14 games are huge from a league point of view as they chase leaders Glasgow, but it also affords Munster a chance to hone their game. Pitches are in better shape now, and it will be great to have the squad together for the rest of the season.

Tonight we won't see Munster handed anything easy against an in-form Cardiff side. Last weekend will have taken a fair bit out of the players, and Cardiff had a weekend off to prepare as well.

It's a huge game for them too: they're level on points in third with Connacht and will fancy a spot in the knockout stages. This is a real tough test and four points would be a great return.

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