Friday 6 December 2019

Old principles discarded in fatal moment of confusion

A dejected Paul O'Connell walks off the pitch after Munster's Heineken Cup semi-final defeat to Toulon
A dejected Paul O'Connell walks off the pitch after Munster's Heineken Cup semi-final defeat to Toulon

Tommy Conlon

You couldn't say that Munster lost last Sunday because of an identity crisis, given their performance was stamped with one of their enduring trademarks.

Once again in France they refused to surrender. It has become a familiar and fundamental part of their modern legacy, this rare ability to survive a battering that would break most other teams.

In the third quarter it looked several times as if the ship was about to sink. They were rammed repeatedly by a larger, heavier galley. For 10 minutes after half-time, Toulon, the defending European champions, repeatedly punctured holes in Munster's fabric and ripped it along the seams. It looked as if only a final few stitches needed to be torn to pull the whole garment apart.

But it held. By a seeming miracle it held. Except it was no miracle at all. Munster did what they've done so often before in these gruelling circumstances. Emotionally and physically they went beyond themselves. They poured out heart and soul. They scrambled for their lives. They clawed and scratched and hung on by their fingertips. Zebo and Downey made desperate last-ditch tackles. The home crowd in Marseille rose to a cacophony, fully expecting the decisive try at any moment.

It never came: the straw that would break the camel's back was held up, driven into touch.

And then suddenly, like zombies risen from the dead, Munster were scoring at the other end. It might've been a new script but this was a familiar story – Munster coming off the ropes and landing a knockdown blow of their own. When Zebo barrelled over in the 53rd, and Keatley landed that sumptuous touchline conversion, Munster turned the tide.

An inch away from drowning, they came up for air and found a second wind. It was this formidable Toulon team that started treading water. Cracks started to appear, mistakes began to materialise.

In quick succession they were pinged for a crooked lineout throw; O'Connell stole another lineout; and they were stripped of the ball twice in two minutes. We'd seen this movie before too, Munster getting under the skin of a team that had previously threatened to overwhelm them.

To complete the anticipated scenario, Munster would take the game away from them in the final quarter. They would expose the nerves of a rattled team. They would play calculated rugby. They would kick for territory and pin their opponents back. They would strangle them with pragmatism, conservatively recycling possession until penalties were won or drop goal chances were engineered.

But this was the part that was missing. This was where they departed from the time-honoured strategy. It wasn't so much an identity crisis as the identity confusion that has blighted Rob Penney's regime almost from the beginning. The coach somewhat predictably had sought to weave more creativity and adventure into Munster's attacking play. It wasn't a particularly original diagnosis of Munster's apparent deficiencies.

But the implementation of the solution frequently seemed worse than the problem. It often left Munster's offensive patterns looking naive and laboured: lateral passing deep behind the gainline with forwards receiving ball out on the wings and stranded in culs-de-sac. Generally it tended to look forced, uncomfortable and fairly harmless.

Last Sunday, almost two years later, it was still looking more like a burden on the players than a liberation. And in the intensity of a European Cup semi-final it seemed also to mess with their minds.

The other marvellous Munster trademark in these situations has been their clarity in battle; their ability to think clearly under pressure; their sound judgment and intelligent ferocity.

These qualities deserted them against Toulon. It had already undermined them grievously in the first half, trying to run ball from inside their own 22 and walking repeatedly into ambushes. Five minutes into the second half they tried it again and caused barely-contained panic in their own ranks. "Tactical madness," said Stuart Barnes on commentary for Sky.

And twice within two minutes, early in the fourth quarter when Munster were now on top, they again resorted to lateral passing moves on the halfway line. They hadn't the raw power or speed to open an omnivorous Toulon

defence in this fashion. It wasn't the right time or place either. On the second occasion, they turned the ball over and paid a high price: Keith Earls was yellow-carded and Jonny Wilkinson landed the ensuing penalty. It handed the French a vital reprieve.

When it comes to integrity of spirit, no Munster team will let you down and this one was no different. Back they came gunning again with that enormous force of will and appetite for punishment. On 71, they won the penalty which would have left them just two behind, and a seriously spooked opponent in front of them.

They had a choice to make but for previous Munster teams it would've been no choice at all. This was a no-brainer: take the points and turn the screw in the home straight. It was the sensible thing to do, and common sense has for a long time been part of their formula too.

But they kicked to the corner in the hope of rumbling over for a second time; it seemed as much a denial of reality as an act of defiance. In the end the better team won. But it could be argued that Munster lost because at times they forgot who they are, and what they do best.

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