Monday 10 December 2018

Gap has narrowed but Munster still playing catch-up

Game plan

Man with a mission: Munster coach Johann van Graan is working hard on the training pitch to make Munster into a real force again. Photo: Sportsfile
Man with a mission: Munster coach Johann van Graan is working hard on the training pitch to make Munster into a real force again. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The word out of Leinster this week is that this fixture doesn't matter as much as it used to. That should sting Munster more than anything.

Rob Kearney's point that the international harmony had lessened tensions between Ireland's bulk suppliers makes sense, while Seán O'Brien's assertion that it is just another interpro is another side of the same coin.

CJ Stander. Photo: Sportsfile
CJ Stander. Photo: Sportsfile

This is the 10th anniversary of the season that changed Irish rugby's balance of power and if you'd asked Kearney and O'Brien back then they'd have given you very different answers.

Munster came to Dublin at the start of that season and won 18-0. Kearney came off the bench, O'Brien was an unused replacement.

The starting team were packed with current internationals and they couldn't manage three points against the reigning European champions.

It all changed the following spring and since Croke Park, the fixture has taken on a very different hue.

Now, with four wins in five games, Leinster approach the fixture comfortable enough in their own skin to make wholesale changes with next week's clash with Wasps in mind.

Having fielded rotated teams for the wins in Thomond Park and the RDS last season, Leo Cullen can produce his cotton wool with confidence.

Johann van Graan is in a very different place as he prepares to name his team this afternoon. Almost a year into his tenure, the South African conceded that he and his team don't know where they are at after producing a record win over Ulster.

It has been a weird season for the men in red who have been rampant at home, scoring 22 tries in three games.

They have been sold short by their opponents in those games, however; the Cheetahs were poor, while Ospreys and Ulster sent reserve sides to Cork and Limerick.

Meanwhile, Munster went to Glasgow and Cardiff and received comprehensive beatings. In both games, they lacked the intensity needed at the breakdown and while they had an excuse in Scotland as Van Graan was waiting on his internationals to get back, there was no such comfort blanket to fall back on in Wales.

They travel to Dublin aware of their pitiful record at the Aviva Stadium. On 10 of the 11 times they have played at the redeveloped Lansdowne Road, they've left with a loss.

This fixture is seen as the traditional kick-off point of the season, but the reality is that it is Leinster who get the turbo charge; Munster are normally handed a kick up the backside.

There is an urgency this time around because Van Graan's men face an unforgiving start to their European campaign, away to Exeter Chiefs in a week's time.

When they met in pre-season, the English side kept Munster scoreless for 80 minutes and they go into tonight's home game against Bath with five wins out of five in the bag, four coming with a try-scoring bonus point.

Intensity

If they cannot lift their intensity levels for the next two away trips, the Reds will be in serious trouble.

However, they are rarely found wanting for fixtures like these; when the focus is on and their full complement of internationals are on deck, they tend to react and perform.

When Munster do perform, there are few clubs on the European scene who can match them.

They come into this campaign having reached the semi-final of the Champions Cup in successive seasons, while they have been to the final and semi-final of the PRO14 in the same period.

Over the summer, they lost Simon Zebo but gained Joey Carbery, Tadhg Beirne, Mike Haley and Arno Botha. Conor Murray could miss this tranche of games, but Alby Mathewson looks a clever addition.

After managing a difficult mid-season transition well last season, the coaching ticket of Van Graan, Felix Jones, Jerry Flannery and JP Ferreira have had a pre-season to implement their post-Rassie Erasmus vision.

Van Graan has repeatedly spoken of widening the game. Jones and Flannery returned from fact-finding missions in New Zealand speaking of improving the catch-pass skill work that could move them beyond the position of competitive also-rans.

With Murray out with his mystery injury and Carbery now installed, they are playing off No 10 more frequently.

In their five games to date, they have passed 51pc of their possessions, run 42pc and kicked just 7pc.

When their pack are dominant, their attack looks sharp and the 22-year-old can release the threats outside him.

However, his inexperience comes to the fore when the pack go backwards, while the skill levels around Carbery have been a let-down in the away losses.

Chiefly, though, in their two defeats it was their pack intensity that let them down - with their breakdown work particularly lacking.

Like last year, CJ Stander is taking some time in getting going, Chris Cloete is only just back from injury and Beirne is still getting to grips with a new style of play and hasn't been able to have the same influence on the ruck.

Their best 23 remain among the strongest around, but when it has gotten to the rarefied air of the last four in Europe it has run aground.

Van Graan's key takeaway after losing the PRO14 semi-final in Dublin was that finishing top of the conference was all-important, but the early signs are that the inconsistency of their league form will make that ambition a struggle.

It is very early days in the campaign, but Munster could really do with a result in a game of substance to breathe life into their season and send them to Exeter on a high.

Given the resources available, the last two seasons have been successful but the long wait for silverware means there is little patience for semi-final exits - especially when it is the men in blue lifting the end-of-season gongs.

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