Thursday 21 November 2019

Neil Francis: Unacceptably poor performance requires an apology to supporters as Reds' frailties laid bare

Half of Foley's line-up not up to European standard, and O'Connell is on the wane, writes Neil Francis

Munster players Peter O'Mahony, left, and Paul O'Connell leave the pitch after the game
Munster players Peter O'Mahony, left, and Paul O'Connell leave the pitch after the game
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Hours before the 2008 Heineken Cup Final between Munster and Toulouse I was sitting in the press room in the Millennium Stadium waiting for the excitement to unfold.

An older man came in and sat down beside me and as I looked around to acknowledge his presence I realised it was the actor Peter O'Toole. The only reason he had sat down beside me was because there was a spare seat there. 

"How are you?" I asked.

"Good" he replied.

"Confident?"

"Yes I think so."

"What do you think they'll win by?"

"Enough."

With Lawrence of Arabia on their side Munster won easily enough to land their second Heineken Cup and all was well.

Yesterday Munster, I reckon, came to Allianz Park to do 'enough' as they always do to keep them in line for progress from the group. Things did not go as they had anticipated and now it would seem Munster will be walking in the desert for some time to come.

Paul O'Connell, Munster, in action against Billy Vunipola, Saracens
Paul O'Connell, Munster, in action against Billy Vunipola, Saracens

This was an important game for rugby on this island on two counts. The first being that Munster have a domestic ticket of indigenous coaching talent and as Irish people we want our own to succeed and continue the fine tradition that is in place.

The second element is after the conspiratorial hijacking of the Heineken Cup, particularly by the English club-owning interests, it was important that Irish teams in direct competition with these clubs beat them and repudiate any of the bullshit arguments put forward about meritocracy and the value and strength of the Pro 12 competition.

Those are some of the reasons why yesterday's exit before the pool stages are even concluded leaves everyone dispiritedly empty.

Munster's base-line leading up to this competition was a 24-16 loss last year in the semi-final to Toulon and a 16-10 loss the previous year to Clermont - results that were significantly closer than the scorelines suggest. A fault-line in preparation and inexplicable under-performance and shoddy execution requires an apology from the team to their fans - this was an unacceptably poor display by Munster. A postscript from the NTT shining arcs in Japan where Rob Penney is in situ will say, 'I told you so.' Munster are in trouble.

Saracens' Chris Ashton evades a tackle from Munster's Simon Zebo to score his side's third try of the game
Saracens' Chris Ashton evades a tackle from Munster's Simon Zebo to score his side's third try of the game

They had played against a team whose roster is not exactly bulging with shining stars but they play with practiced competence. They err on the clever side of cynicism on the ground and yesterday played with confidence and cohesion.

Munster's foundation stone is cohesion, it has been their template since the inception of this competition and they played such a lacking form of their traditional game that even the foundation stones will have to be forensically analysed. They were beaten off the park in all areas of the game yesterday and looking for excuses is an exercise in semantics.

Whenever one of their holy trinity (O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony and Conor Murray) are missing Munster will struggle. In truth, even if Murray had played yesterday it would not have made a significant difference.

If I could borrow from James Shirley's Death the Leveller:

The glories of our blood and state

Ian Keatley shows his disappointment after Munster’s heavy defeat at Saracens
Ian Keatley shows his disappointment after Munster’s heavy defeat at Saracens

are shadows not substantial things

there is no armour against fate

death lays his icy hand on kings

sceptre and crown

must tumble down

and in the dust be equal made

with the poor crooked scythe and spade

Yesterday we probably got our first empirical evidence that death had laid it hands on one of our kings. Paul O'Connell had his least effective game in a long while for Munster. The number of knock-ons, poorly directed passes and mistakes that he made were difficult to fathom or believe.

His value to this side is still enormous purely on the basis of his influence alone, but yesterday there were cracks in his playing armour and maybe his announcement of his impending retirement is not a coincidence.

Part of his problem was that he was trying to marshal mediocrity and of Munster's starters Dave Foley, Duncan Casey, James Cronin, Denis Hurley, Pat Howard, Duncan Williams and BJ Botha are just not up to Heineken Cup standard.

What was noteworthy about yesterday's game was that it signalled yet again the re-emergence of the scrum as a major factor in how the game is played and dictated in the northern hemisphere.

As all the other provinces have discovered, including Leinster, if you get beaten at the scrum the likelihood is that you won't recover, irrespective of who you have in your three-quarter line -and Munster had nobody in their back line that was going to make a difference yesterday.

The sight of Mako Vunipola making mincemeat out of Botha cements the notion that the South African is past his sell by date and will hasten his departure out of the province.

Munster were beaten on the gain-line and the scene of the tackle and the other Vunipola brother, Billy, had a sensational 80 minutes - it is one thing identifying Saracens' main offensive threat, it is an entirely different prospect trying to stop him. Quite often the first tackle was ineffectual and Munster needed three men to bring him down - that was after he had beaten the gain-line.

If there was any criticism of England's South Sea Islander it was that his control at the base of the scrum was slipshod, which cost Saracens a few tries and a bonus point.

Indeed Saracens could have, with a little bit more patience and better execution, scored another five or six tries but they were probably not expecting to win as well as they did and one of the contributing factors for butchering those try-scoring opportunities was that they showed Munster far too much respect even when it was evident that they were dead and buried.

Another thing to manifest itself in this contest, if I can use that word, was the difference in skill levels. Simon Zebo and Andrew Conway are decent wingers yet we never saw them trail ball carriers or come up using oblique supporting lines like Chris Ashton or Chris Wyles. Saracens used the width of the pitch as often as they could confident in the knowledge that their back three would manufacture something. I have to say I feel sorry for Alex Goode to have to play second fiddle to the exceptional England full-back Mike Browne. Goode was - as his name suggests - very good yesterday.

The first try told you everything about the difference in ability with ball in hand. When Owen Farrell took possession going left and Vunipola took a straight line it suckered Hurley and Conway in to take the pocket battleship down. The ball went behind and Saracens ran straight knowing that two men had been fooled to come up out of the line. Goode did the simple things well, he stepped in, dummied the pass first and then fed it to Wyles and the covering Duncan Williams had no choice but to make the tackle, leaving Wyles free and unencumbered to dot down. The unheralded Wyles showed a delicious piece of skill when he set up Ashton for Saracens' second try. He has pace but he was never going to out-run the corner-flagging Munster defence but just as he got to the line he dropped the ball down onto his feet and kicked it in-field with his left foot and Ashton scored. How many Munster players could manufacture that sort of skill?

Maybe Saracens will kick themselves for not getting the bonus point, and it might cost them dearly. They are a decent side and you would fancy them to acquit themselves well in the Stade Marcel Michelin next Sunday.

As for Munster there is so much more for them to do besides just getting up and dusting themselves off after this knockout blow. They will now have to countenance playing next season without the inestimable O'Connell. This is uncharted territory and after all their challenges over the years, this could prove to be their biggest.

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