Jacques Nienaber has rejected criticism of Munster’s Champions Cup semi-final performance against Saracens a fortnight ago, insisting the province was beaten simply by “a better plan”.
Munster’s exit to the defending champions in a humbling 26-10 defeat at Aviva Stadium brought an end to an extended European campign few observers thought was possible at the start of the season.
With Rassie Erasmus joining as director of rugby and bringing fellow South African Nienaber as his defence coach they joined head coach Anthony Foley and assistants Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones to oversee a squad that had only squeaked into this season’s Champions Cup on the final day of the 2015-16 league campaign.
Yet despite exceeding expectations by finishing top of a pool containing Glasgow, Racing 92 and Leicester Tigers, then beating Toulouse in the quarters, the defeat to Saracens provoked a backlash with critics labelling Munster’s rigid tactics “brain dead” and calling for a fresh infusion of talent from overseas.
Nienaber accepted Munster were second best on the day but current personnel would learn from the Saracens defeat.
“I just think they had better plans,” Nienaber told the Irish Examiner of the Sarries performance. “They had such good plans and we certainly learned a lot in terms of playing against them. I could see how the plans you make as a coach and invest in the players during the week, that you think will combat them and win you the game, that obviously it wasn’t good enough.
“So you sit back and you say ‘maybe that wasn’t a great plan. I will definitely do that differently next time’. ‘Yes, I could have done that differently. I saw it in the videos but I didn’t think it would have that big an influence. I should have put more focus and emphasis on that’. It was a good learning curve.
“Even when they went 16-3 up I felt one score for us, and we had an opportunity to score then and we didn’t capitalise on that. I felt we were still in it up to their second try and that’s when we were out of it. I thought we did well. Munster will stand up and fight like it says in the song we sing and we scored our try in minute 81, which was good for us to do, to get over the line and fight right to the end.” Munster are still in the hunt for silverware with a guaranteed home Guinness PRO12 semi-final against either Scarlets or Ospreys on May 20 and will face Connacht at Thomond Park today in their final regular season game looking to pip leaders Leinster to finish top of the table.
Nienaber said rather than making drastic changes, Munster needed to learn from their setbacks and build on the positives under Erasmus.
“Sometimes, when you design a house, the architect will tell ‘please show me pictures of what you like and show me pictures of what you don’t like. Sometimes you learn more from the ones you don’t like than ones you do. For me, playing against one of the benchmark teams in Europe, you’re sometimes better off learning, saying ‘this worked, but this didn’t so we really need to change that.’
“I had a few beers with Schalk Brits and Schalk Burger afterwards and they complimented us on our contesting at lineouts. They have a very good attacking lineout and they scored off one but we stole a few balls.”
Of the things that did not work for Munster, Nienaber, speaking only from his specialist standpoint, suggested a need to improve the consistency of defensive pressure applied.
Yet that is a problem he believes is his to fix and places no blame on the players.
“Since I’ve been here there’s never been an instance where I’ve felt there’s been a lack of effort or attitude in training where I had to be hard on players. Senior players drive the culture and the standards.
“There’s been disappointments along the way. Last weekend against Treviso (an away game won 34-14) I was disappointed in the way we conducted ourselves at the end. I was unbelievably happy with the first 76 minutes but the last four minutes I felt Treviso attacked really well.
We had new players on at that stage, like Burkey (Rory Burke), played his first game for us, we had Scotty (Brian Scott) and Kevin O’Byrne on who haven’t been part of us for a while, Fineen (Wycherly) was another new player.
“I was not disappointed with them - I was more angry with myself because we had a lot of new players and I could see them making one or two systems errors which is my fault. I should have made sure that they make them and I was more disappointed in terms of that. So I was angry with myself afterwards for that, I should have prepped them better than that.
“So there’s been times like that where I was pissed off at myself, when I thought something might bite us and it did bite us. But the players have been good.”
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