Friday 17 August 2018

Neil Francis: Munster's preparation for Racing 92 was madness - and it's why they ended up playing in slow motion

Planning around PRO14 trip to South Africa left Reds lethargic when heat came on in Bordeaux

Munster wilted in the early stages against Racing which left them with too great a mountain to climb. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster wilted in the early stages against Racing which left them with too great a mountain to climb. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

What is it about home advantage? How is it that teams playing at home are far sharper, more cohesive, so much more composed and generally engage in the team dynamic far more naturally than they do when they play away from home?

Of all the teams that play in Europe, Munster enjoy the benefits of their own home environment more than any other team. There is a reason why they win in Thomond Park so often. Munster also win there because they daren't lose.

They win there because the Munster team understand the responsibility thrust upon them and that is why sometimes extraordinary things happen in Thomond. Munster win matches there when they are hopelessly outclassed because sheer will trumps talent every time in that part of the world.

The team in the away dressing room are usually going through their game-plan silently and mentally before they go onto the pitch - put on the scrum cap, adjust the jockstrap and a couple of buddy bumps or handshakes with their team-mates.

In the home dressing room Munster are fixing bayonets and sharpening their swords - this is not just a game of rugby - it's war. An unquestioning readiness to sacrifice!

A few weeks ago, Toulon came to town. A serious outfit and a cadre of mean hombres who weren't in the least bit scared of what Thomond meant. They went out and played Munster off the park and yet still managed to lose 20-19. How does that happen? Another fabled entry in the list of out-performances at the pantheon.

Outgunned for talent, ability and power, Munster rely on an unquenchable and indomitable will. I can't give you a percentage - but they play above themselves every time they set foot on that ground.

That will ensures they are far sharper, far more enthusiastic and committed than their opponents and when the pace hots up they stay with the pace - they stay longer than the mother-in-law! They hold their ground and they cede nothing and not one score is given away cheaply. Am I getting the point across to you?

The only reason they beat Toulon was because they play like a bunch of dervishes - controlled and organised dervishes. They have many other qualities but this one is their key competitive advantage - lose it and they are ordinary.

When Munster beat Toulon, I am sure even the team wondered aloud, "How did we manage to pull that one off?" Maybe they shouldn't ask any questions why or how they do what they do and just keep going.

Munster's performance against Toulon was a long way from being perfect but if they had brought that same pitch of intensity to Bordeaux they would have won handy last Sunday.

Munster got out of a pretty poor group in the pool stages. A dreadful Leicester side, a completely disinterested Castres side, both at sea in their own domestic leagues and then their opponents last Sunday who finished two points behind them on 19 points.

Racing had lost two of their first three matches in the pool and did well to qualify. They are far from a great side and the first 20 minutes that we witnessed in the semi-final in Bordeaux was down almost exclusively to a vapid display from Munster which almost bordered on disinterest.

I have heard people say it was the worst Munster performance in a generation. That is not true. The Pro12 final last year was a bigger calamity. Munster lost their integrity that day and this season was about redemption. A change of coach didn't help. A 22-46 scoreline which included two late consolation tries didn't come close to explaining how bad Munster were.

An audit of a team's mental state will always manifest in the tackle stats in the Pro12 final. If tackling is a mental thing then Munster had flown the coop.

No team that misses 29 tackles (35pc) is going to win and more importantly wants to win.

In Bordeaux last Sunday, they missed 18 tackles (22pc) a big improvement on the Pro12 debacle but well down on their quarter-final stats where they missed only 14pc of their tackles. Surely this Munster team would have improved on that in Bordeaux.

It was though not about the number of tackles missed last Sunday, it was the nature or non-execution of the tackle. The lack of line speed, the general malaise when they didn't have the ball. How and why did they look so vulnerable, so lacking in defiance, so meek? Yes, they were outside their citadel but this was a team with an appetite to reclaim former glories. How can you reconcile the aspiration with the performance?

There are a couple of elements to it - the trip to South Africa was madness. Munster stayed at sea level for most of the two weeks that they were in the Republic. They had to play the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein which is about 5,000 feet above sea level - once you train or play there for even a couple of days, the oxygen-carrying capacity of your red blood cells will change and more importantly it will change once again when you go back down to sea level.

Ten of Munster's starters and 16 of the Bordeaux squad played in Bloemfontein. Crazy!

I remember the World Cup in South Africa where we played New Zealand and Wales in Jo'burg (6,000 feet) and Japan in Bloemfontein.

We were due to play France in Durban at sea level in the quarters. Ireland travelled down four days before the game. We were super-charged for the first two days but by the time match day came we could barely get off our seats in the dressing room in Kings Park to get out on to the pitch.

France flew from Jo'burg on the day of the match and polished us off with ease and then flew back up to Jo'burg immediately. They did the same again for the semi-final against South Africa and should have won that game.

The plane journeys and the logistics are a factor - but they don't really explain the lethargy of Munster's performance. You can't put that performance solely down to attitude - fatigue and altitude did most of the damage.

Cardiff did the same trip as Munster. They had a nightmare 55-hour trip to Bloemfontein but that might be the reason they are in the Challenge Cup final. Cardiff spent a day in Bloemfontein and got down to sea level immediately and spent the week in the Cape region at sea level. Last Saturday they looked very sharp to me as they disposed of Pau - would it have been the same if they had played against the Southern Kings first and then the Cheetahs second and then gone home like Munster did?

You can't be so lacking in sharpness. You can't be so far off the pace. You cannot make so many uncharacteristic mistakes and look like a team that hasn't played together for six months.

You can get 20 altitude experts in a room and they will come out with 20 different theories on how and for how long the effects of altitude will affect athletic performance. I think it had a huge impact on the team.

If Munster can't thump you hard in the tackle, if they can't trouble you with their line speed or clear out rucks with voracious intensity or get in your face for every second of the game, well then they are not going to trouble many sides.

The team that just about woke up out of its slumbers in the second half in Bordeaux did so because Racing took their foot off the pedal.

There are many things to discuss from the loss which we can do at a later date but Munster lost this semi-final principally because they were playing in slow motion from the off brought about by their South African tour.

Costly on every front!

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