Sunday 22 September 2019

Neil Francis: The game was entertaining but for Leinster fans, 80 minutes of water-boarding would have been preferable

Munster's Simon Zebo leaves the pitch. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Munster's Simon Zebo leaves the pitch. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The stench of wasted opportunity was the overriding aroma in the aftermath of this match. What-ifs rolling off the tongue. Leinster, infinitely smarter, got the job done. Their challenge was a far more difficult task to deal with because the battle was not with Munster but with themselves.

Fatigue and the ability to go again once the major prize had been garnered were the main opponents. It took deep conviction and a depth of self-belief that has deserted Munster.

It was an entertaining game but for Leinster fans you suspect that 80 minutes of water-boarding would have been preferable as their side went in to energy-saving mode and could have been caught at the death if Munster had displayed even a smidgen of the wit and guile that their champion side of 10 years ago possessed in spades.

Great things never come from comfort zones and the first 15 minutes of this game gave you the impression that Leinster were quite happy to leave the harbour and do a Volvo ocean race complete with hardship and uncertainty.

If they had maintained the sort of barbarism that they displayed in their tackling in that period they would have beaten Munster off the park, but they were unable to continue primarily because of events last week. Yet they were good enough and showed enough resolve to do just enough.

As the complexion of the game changed and Munster began to dominate field position and territory, Leinster had to rethink. Improvidus, apto quad victum (improvise, adapt and overcome). The stats tell you that Munster won this game. The trouble with stats, though, is that they never really tell you which side is the smarter and they can't define trends.

That is the thing about the game of rugby union - you can never underestimate the power of simplicity. They won this game because their discipline made the difference.

They only conceded six penalties to Munster's 14. A penalty count of that standing normally demands a stewards' enquiry, but Munster were very loose in that department, almost as loose as their passing, and that was the difference.

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It is one thing playing rope-a-dope but it is another thing bringing your opponent on and not succumbing to any pressure that they may apply. Munster, in many cases, even though they outscored Leinster with two tries to one, were missing the key qualities required at semi-final level. Intuition and guile were needed to finish some of the opportunities which they ground out for themselves.

The fact that Munster were in a position to be able to win this game at all stages throughout the second half was a matter of conjecture. Once again the match officials, as was the case with Wayne Barnes, were not able to make the right decisions at the right time. Quite how Jean Kleyn was still on the field after the 36th minute was beyond me. We can delve into that grey area bookended by the terms "reckless" and "deliberate" which is where Kleyn's offence lay. If World Rugby are serious about player welfare, the protection of players and the serious issue of concussion, then Kleyn's yellow should have been red.

The Munster second-row broke many laws with his actions but his arms were so far away from being a legal clear-out. The fact that he led with his head while going off his feet - and his head made contact with Ross Byrne's head - surely this is something that World Rugby have communicated to all of their referees about dangerous play. Kleyn's action had no grey area and it should have been a straight red with a long suspension attached for next year.

Neil Patterson, the Scottish TMO, also distinguished himself in his review of Gerbrandt Grobler's "try." Players are pretty poor actors and all Patterson had to do was observe Grobler's body language.

The Munster second-row knew he hadn't scored. The Leinster defence also knew that the ball hadn't gone within six inches of touching the post and there were hands on the ball which had prevented a second movement.

Mr Patterson, perhaps in accordance with another World Rugby directive related to not spending too much time running and re-running video footage, gave the try in double-quick time with no clear or obvious evidence that I could see. It provided us with a grandstand finish.

Leinster's bench saved the men in blue from an embarrassing defeat and a couple of excellent turnovers - one from James Tracey when Munster were hammering away in their 22 and the other being the match-stopper by Max Deegan - were key. Tracey made the tackle on Kilcoyne and there may have been a debate on whether Deegan was a tackler, and he did not separate from Kilcoyne. But the fact was that Deegan trusted Tracey to make the tackle and Kilcoyne merely bumped into Deegan and therefore the Leinster man was entitled to go in and look for the turnover on the ground.

If Tracey had missed his tackle Kilcoyne would have got past Deegan and Leinster would have been in real trouble. Even when Leinster were running on fumes they had trust in their systems. Deegan locked in and Munster simply couldn't shift him and that was the game.

Munster are now eight seasons without any silverware. They still have purpose and drive and have rediscovered some of their personality but yesterday, despite only being one point away, showed you that they have no intuition and they are not smart enough, particularly when opportunity presents. They can fool themselves by saying that if two or three of about a dozen very loose passes had gone to hand that they would have won this game.

At this level their skills are not good enough, particularly their passing skills, their lines of running are copied from teams like Leinster, Scarlets or Glasgow who know how to fix defences and know how and when to get their dummy runners right and, more importantly, who know naturally how to create space.

Their roster does not look like it will be any stronger next year and Zebo heads off to Paris without a medal of any kind from his sojourn in Munster. Whatever about the money, Zebo may have a better chance of winning some silverware in Paris.

We might see a different type of game in the final and hopefully Leinster have time to recharge their batteries as they face a team who have a good chance of learning from their mistakes in the semi-final of the Champions Cup.

As the Coldplay song goes in relation to the quest for a double: "Nobody said it would be easy, nobody said it would be this hard."

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