Monday 19 August 2019

Neil Francis: 'Munster's heart and conviction just not enough against Europe's superpowers'

Conor Murray of Munster is tackled by Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola of Saracens during the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final. Photo: Brendan Moran. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Conor Murray of Munster is tackled by Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola of Saracens during the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final. Photo: Brendan Moran. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I was listening to Frank Skinner talk about his most difficult gigs a few weeks back.

The worst one he remembered was being heckled by a blind man. The man in the second row of the audience shouted, "Get off the stage you useless bastard." Skinner sized up the situation pretty quickly but was unable to respond. About 20 seconds later the blind man turned to the audience and asked, "Has he gone yet?"

At half-time in Coventry you could have asked the same question of Munster. Yes indeed, they were still there and only 12-9 down, but you have to ask the question: How do they continue to do it? We knew even before the ball was kicked off that they did not have the firepower or the horses to trouble a Saracens side that were locked and loaded in every position on the field and knew exactly how to beat Munster.

Saracens' 12 points in the first half were hard-earned and the product of invention, endeavour and confident teamwork. Munster got a handy nine points from just hanging in there by the skin of their teeth and yet even they knew what would be coming in the second half. If you make 82 tackles in the sunshine in the first half, you are going to run out of fuel at some stage in the second half.

Credit where it is due - Munster engaged Saracens on the gain line because their lives did depend on it and the quality and ferocity of tackling is something that World Rugby will have to do something about. They were marching in London and Dublin over the weekend about climate change and extinction but in the short term some of the tackling yesterday was a greater threat to human life.

Munster were simply outclassed - as we knew they would be. We did not know after the semi-final loss to Leinster in 2009 how long it would take to rebuild the cathedral. Notre Dame will be completed in five years' time, by which time Munster will be nowhere closer to their great sides of '06 and '08.

In the Premier League you have the Top Six - Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham.

No one outside that group will win anything in any of their domestic competitions. Munster have a good chance of a Pro14 this year but in terms of the Heineken Cup they are Everton or Leicester - decent sides that don't have the power or the squad size to take on the big boys. They will always be competitive but the glass ceiling of a semi-final is as far as they will go.

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What would it have taken to progress? They maybe could have advanced if the match had been played in Thomond but probably not the Aviva as they were dispatched in the same style two years ago. Maybe if the men in red had Joe Schmidt coaching them that would have made a difference and quite possibly if Joey Carbery and Keith Earls had been playing that may have made a difference.

Munster had no cutting edge outside of their wonderful scrumhalf Conor Murray and this was the key difference between the two sides. Maybe we could point to another glass ceiling - that of the salary cap. It is difficult to see how Saracens can amass a squad of such quality and pay them so little.

The difference in quality in the back three told you everything you needed to know about which way this match would go. Liam Williams is probably the best fullback in Europe and possibly the world at the moment. Saracens chose to play him on the left wing yesterday and every intervention and every time he got his hands on the ball just sparked of his quality. Pantomime villain Billy Vunipola may have got the man of the match award but Williams was the most effective and skilful player on the pitch. How much are they paying him?

On the other wing, Sean Maitland ended up crying off in the warm-up. Maitland is also a high-quality player and yet his absence was barely noticed as England international David Strettle seamlessly took his place. How much are they paying him?

Alex Goode has been the best fullback in the Gallagher's Premiership for the last year yet his form is not good enough to get him into the England squad. He was very good again yesterday. His lines of running, the cut-back angles and great vision to connect with all his supporting runners. The difference in quality between the Saracens back three and the Munster back three was a little vignette on just how the destination of this game would end up.

Saracens won the kick-chase game and they retrieved their box-kicks and put Munster under more pressure in this area. Only Andrew Conway stood up to the constant bullying in the air. In Munster's midfield, honest to goodness endeavour and the ability to live on your wits will only get you so far. Munster's inability to pass fluently and to get men away into space will always catch them out in the bigger games, and maybe Carbery's passing and his instinct might have helped, but not if your midfield pair are not open to suggestion or if they don't have the wit or guile to get your back three away. This is where Leinster have the potential to win today against Toulouse.

At 10, Bleyendaal just wasn't a factor. Game management and execution are one thing but in games of this magnitude you need force of personality and the New Zealander just doesn't have it at this level, nor did replacement JJ Hanrahan, although he did improve things.

Murray had a strong showing and probably his most effective game of the season so far. His passing was crisp and accurate and for the first time this season there was a little bit of zing in it but something told you just about how the game was being played out and how much responsibility Murray had to take on to his own shoulders.

Murray had to make 12 tackles, two of which he missed, among a multitude of things to do including kicking a superb 50-metre penalty. His opposite number, the excellent Ben Spencer, had a very productive afternoon only had to make one tackle all afternoon. I think in the vernacular this is called the 'armchair ride' and it sets apart Murray's all-hands-to-the-pump display against Spencer's, which was purely there to fire his forwards and service his backs.

Even when Sweetnam scored in the right corner you sensed the game was never really there to be retrieved and this fact was confirmed when Munster brought Jeremy Loughman, Stephen Archer and Billy Holland off the bench. Saracens brought Will Skelton, Vincent Koch and Schalk Burger on to the pitch just for fun.

Agony again for Munster and you feel for them in the sense that it is still not a level playing field and sometimes at this level heart and conviction just are not enough.

Leinster do have the quality to win today but you would hope that the match is long won by the time some of their bench players get on to the field. Leinster's quality is not what it should be either.

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