Sunday 19 January 2020

Potentially one match from disastrous exit, Reds have to regroup and up intensity

Munster's hopes come crashing down to leave season on razor's edge, writes Conor George

Conor George

Where to now for Munster, out-played and out-scored by a vigorous Edinburgh in a dramatic Heineken Cup game at Murrayfield?

Munster failed to measure up as they were second best to a powerful Edinburgh pack throughout a game that served to embarrass the same players who so easily humbled the mighty Leinster just a week previously.

It is easy at this juncture to point to the many first-line players who were undercooked because of a lack of game-time and ascribe the poor team performance to the way the return of the likes of Conor Murray, Felix Jones and BJ Botha was stilted as a result of injury and a heavy summer schedule.

Jones started his first game of the season last weekend, while this was a first start for Murray and came off the back of just 20 minutes off the bench against Leinster.

It should not be forgotten, however, that the players coming into the team did so with high reputations as bona fide members of an international class. Murray, for example, is widely regarded as one of the best No 9s in the European game but even he was not immune to the general malaise that afflicted the team.

The upshot of Munster's awful performance is they are now left contemplating what was unimaginable just a week ago ... they are now potentially one more loss away from having their Heineken aspirations shattered beyond repair.

RETURN

There may also be a very real cost in terms of personnel and not just to cater for the return of captain Peter O'Mahony.

Simon Zebo had to be helped from the pitch with an ankle injury – "he'll be assessed as the week progresses," said coach Rob Penney – while James Coughlan shipped a potentially serious arm injury.

The No 8 was in a sling in Edinburgh airport and clearly in some discomfort. He was due to have an X-ray to determine the nature of the injury yesterday.

There are bound to be other bumps and bruises to mind and mend over the coming days and that is a worry with less than a week to go to a game that has assumed huge importance with their ambitions precariously balanced on a razor's edge.

Where, just 10 days ago, there had been high hopes and ambitions, there now exists the reality of a season starting to wobble. A positive response this week – in training and against Gloucester in Thomond Park on Saturday – has to be forthcoming.

"There was a lack of any spark at half-time, which was hugely worrying," said Penney. "It is hugely frustrating because we were still in it with 20 minutes to go but the lack of any spark for me points to a defect in poor mental preparation and that is something that must be addressed this week."

Credit must be given to Edinburgh for their performance. They were written off by everybody – including their own media – but emerged worthy winners of a match that was vigorously contested but dominated by them where it mattered.

They delighted in the war of attrition up front, absorbed the best that Munster could produce and hit back with power and accuracy to earn their win.

Munster failed to match their intensity. Penney and his squad must re-group quickly. They are now engaged in a game of catch-up and they are the chasing side. The kneejerk response to a defeat of this nature is wholesale change.

The problem with that policy for Penney is not knowing where to start but where to stop. Were he to put 15 names on a dartboard and throw blindfolded, the coach could find a reason to drop any name pricked.

How many times did Munster's players fumble or knock on the ball? How many penalties did they cough up for playing the ball illegally on the ground or from an offside position? How is it that a line-out that performed so admirably last weekend was comprehensively out-thought?

INTENSITY

And perhaps most damning of all, where was the intensity and the passion they showed in abundance against Leinster in Limerick last weekend?

"We have to look at why we were mentally so 'off' this weekend," said Penney. "I don't like using the word complacency but it's probably apt this week.

"That's not a good enough performance. There are a lot of embarrassed players in our dressing-room after that."

Tradition dictates that tempers will be frayed this week. Munster players usually take defeats of this nature personally and the first contact session of the week is usually a tasty affair.

It was suggested after the game that it was 'a bad day at the office'. That was an understatement as Munster's handling and application of the basics were seriously flawed.

It is true to emphasise that nothing is won in October but a tone has been set. Even if Munster score a morale-boosting win over Gloucester next weekend, this loss has made their position precarious. It has the potential to haunt them all the way to January's final two rounds of matches and impact hugely on the final pool standings.

Irish Independent

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