Sport Rugby

Saturday 18 January 2020

Ugly win does little to answer questions over Munster

Munster 26 Gloucester 10

Munster's Keith Earls attempts to get away from Gloucester pair Freddie Burns, left, and Rob Cook
Munster's Keith Earls attempts to get away from Gloucester pair Freddie Burns, left, and Rob Cook

Conor George

MUNSTER'S reaction to their defeat of Gloucester must be tempered by the acknowledgement that they faced an understrength English side and that they stuttered their way to an unconvincing win.

It will be sobering for Munster to reflect that the problems so patently obvious in their defeat to Edinburgh were evident again here, not least in the lack of creativity and inventiveness behind their forward pack.

At times it was painful to watch as Munster moved the ball from left to right and back again with no clear agenda. It was only when Peter O'Mahony or Dave Kilcoyne took out their frustrations with a bulldozing run through the middle that Munster made any yards of note.

This is a team struggling for consistency and rapidly running out of opportunities to recover it.

The positives from Saturday night's win are that they won the match and denied Gloucester a losing bonus point; but these are modest victories for a squad that has lost only two players from last year's roster – Doug Howlett and Ronan O'Gara.

Munster coach Rob Penney suggested that his team suffers from comparisons to those that have gone before – "they're anxious because the expectations are so high," he said – and submitted that it is also a new team still coming together.

There may be an element of truth to that, but at the same time 17 of the squad that were involved in the highlight game of last season – Harlequins – were included in the squad on Saturday evening.

The truth is that Munster should be capable of putting in a far more convincing performance against a Gloucester side shorn of 12 regulars.

Gloucester coach Nigel Davies insisted that he had not sacrificed the game in Limerick by making so many changes – "the only way to build depth is to play players in games like this," he said – and that he had gleaned enough from the experience to be confident of reversing the result when the sides meet again in Kingsholm in January.

"We created some good opportunities out there and I felt we did enough to get something from the game," said Davies.

"I am bitterly disappointed that we didn't, but at the same time I am very encouraged. I felt a lot of our inaccuracies were of our own doing.

"The team out there could have won that game. It was won on a couple of moments. The good thing for us is that we've come to a very difficult place, put in a performance and have Munster to come to Kingsholm yet, and that's a difficult place to come to as well.

"It was a great game today with great intensity, but we will have home advantage next time we meet and that always gives you an edge," he added.

Davies also revealed that some of the changes he made from the team that defeated Perpignan a week previously had been forced on him. Most notably, Billy Twelvetrees was ill and would have started had he been available.

That is somewhat ominous for Munster because it is probable they will need to win against Gloucester in Kingsholm if they are to prolong their European adventure beyond the pool stage.

What is most worrying from a Munster perspective is that despite enjoying 60pc possession and territory and maintaining pressure for long periods, they lacked the final punch of an incisive game-breaking move.

It was only in the 62nd minute when Keith Earls finally injected some pace into the game and took Gloucester on out wide that they looked dangerous. It was just bad luck that denied the winger a try after a brilliant link-up with Denis Hurley down the right touchline.

Munster went into the break 16-10 in front – Damien Varley crashed over for Munster's try after Charlie Sharples touched down in the 12th minute – and a try at this juncture for Earls might well have inspired them to a more definitive victory.

Instead they had to make do with another successful penalty from Ian Keatley to push them nine points clear.

There was one stand-out moment in the second half that climaxed with Johne Murphy scorching clear of the Gloucester defence for a try after gathering a sumptuous cross-field kick from Ian Keatley that caught the normally excellent Gloucester defence flat-footed.

It was enough to secure the win and, in the end, deny Gloucester a losing bonus point and was one of the few moves that will make the highlights' reel from a game that promised much but delivered little.

Rob Penney referenced the truism in rugby that "sometimes you need to win ugly" but it is enormously concerning that Munster have looked little better than ordinary in the last 10 days against opposition they should be beating with a bonus point.

Munster desperately needed to win on Saturday after what was described as "a difficult week" by the coach but there is no escaping the conclusion that they made an understrength and average Gloucester side look far better than they were.

For the second week in a row Munster's errors were as numerous as needles on a thistle and their tactics were lacking, for they surely should have looked to play to the corners and play territory more in the second half when the wind was at their backs.

Had they played a more territorial game, they could have maximised their excellent line-out – what a difference a week makes – and perhaps ignited their maul, which was underused on an evening when it could have done some serious damage.

There was a feeling in the aftermath that the win was all that mattered to the principals, that the performance and loss to Edinburgh rattled the team and coaching staff even more than was initially thought.

If that is the case, they will take heart from the fact that at the end Earls again showed they can do damage out wide when he screeched through.

He was called back for a forward pass but on a positive note it was an indication of what they are capable of when they do get it right.

Scorers – Munster: D Varley, J Murphy try each; I Keatley 4 pens, 2 cons. Gloucester: C Sharples try; J Bentley pen, con.

Munster – F Jones (D Hurley 58 (JJ Hanrahan 67)); K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey (C Sheridan 79), J Murphy; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 70), D Varley (M Sherry 73), BJ Botha (S Archer 75); D O'Callaghan (J Coughlan 66), P O'Connell; D Ryan (CJ Stander 69), P O'Mahony, S Dougall.

Gloucester – M Thomas (R Cook 7); C Sharples, M Tindall, R Mills, J May; J Bentley (F Burns 49), D Robson (T Knoyle 66); D Murphy (Y Thomas 76), D Dawiduik, R Harden; L Lokotui (J Hudson 49), W James (G Evans 61); M Cox, B Morgan, A Qera.

Ref – J Garces (Fra)

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