Donal Lenihan: Where has Munster's ability to escape tight spots gone?

Donal Lenihan: Where has Munster's ability to escape tight spots gone?
SMILING THROUGH THE PAIN: Alex McHenry and Shane Daly share a lighter moment at Tuesday's Munster training session. However, Munster are set for an early European exit, something Donal Lenihan puts down to poor game-management. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

It’s time for cool heads and honest appraisal. The fallout if Munster fail to make the knockout phase of the Heineken Champions Cup, as seems likely, with a final round of action still to play, is understandable.

Nobody felt that pain more than the players as they made the trek home from Paris on the charter flight late on Sunday night.

In reality, it’s what I expected might happen from the moment the pool draw was announced last summer.

Lost amidst all the build-up to the World Cup, being paired in a pool with two of an increasingly shrinking group of clubs capable of winning the Champions Cup outright in Saracens and Racing 92, meant Johann van Graan was facing an uphill battle from the outset.

With more than four months of competitive action to come, a forensic examination of Munster’s season is premature at this stage.

At this point however, the mid-term report makes for disappointing reading.

Based on results alone, a run of two wins from their last eight games has increased the focus on the squad and management for all the wrong reasons.

Where once Munster made a virtue out of winning tight matches, they now struggle to negotiate their way out of challenging situations. Speaking in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s defeat, Peter O’Mahony bemoaned the failure to manage their way through the pool better.

Donal Lenihan: Where has Munster's ability to escape tight spots gone?

As a consequence, barring a miracle, Munster will fail to make the quarter-finals for only the fourth time in the last 21 years of European action.

When analysing the reasons for that, much can be put down to poor game-management and a failure to execute under pressure.

Without making excuses, there are reasons for Munster’s shortcomings over the last two months.

With 12 players away on World Cup duty from June to November, a new attack coach and set piece coach in Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree arriving on the scene in August and late October respectively, it feels as if Munster have been cramming for an exam before every game.

Leinster faced the same challenges in terms of having even more personnel involved with Ireland but with the stability Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster bring to their set-up, the late arrival of their new forwards coach Robbie McBride from the Welsh coaching team created minimal disruption.

It helps also that Cullen has a stable of outstanding young talent, ready, willing, and able to take every opportunity presented to them when handed a blue jersey. They are fully aware that, due to the unprecedented level of competition within the group, you had better take your chance when it presents itself.

While there is an encouraging number of talented young players coming through the Munster system at present — witness the contributions from Josh Wycherley, John Hodnett, Craig Casey, Ben Healy, Jake Flannery, Sean French, and Jonathan Wren to the Ireland U20 Grand Slam side last season — that is the exception rather than the rule down here.

Leinster have that volume of talent, and more, coming through their system every season. For them, it’s a question of who to leave out of their academy rather than who to select. More often than not, they’re spoiled for choice.

What Munster’s European campaign has highlighted again is the pressing need for a bustling, ball-winning second row with a hard edge to supplement the existing locks in the squad.

That has been identified and if the high-profile signing of Springbok World Cup winner RG Snyman goes ahead, it will fill that void.

Allied to that, Munster need a game breaker in midfield. Again that has been recognised and the equally exciting capture of Snyman’s World Cup team-mate Damian De Allende appears tailormade to provide that.

Those potential signings could be transformative.

Munster’s worrying lack of depth was forcibly highlighted by the fact that, with just Tadhg Beirne and Fineen Wycherley out injured, Van Graan felt he had no other lock of sufficient quality to warrant inclusion on the bench in Paris.

This from a province with a proud history and long tradition for producing quality international second rows, and who allowed Donnacha Ryan flee the nest long before his time was up, is disappointing.

I looked at the Munster bench and, with two back rowers included in Arno Botha and Chris Cloete, wondered what would happen if Jean Kleyn got injured in the opening 10 minutes.

Against a front five as physically imposing as Racing’s, that would have finished the contest there and then.

As it happened Botha, who clearly isn’t a second row, had to front up for the last 10 minutes in that role when Kleyn ran out of steam.

While Munster’s front five performed admirably throughout the majority of the contest, it was clear that they were sucking diesel in the final quarter.

In the opposition coaching box, Racing were replacing hulking mares up front in Ben Tameifuna, Boris Palu, and Bernard Le Roux with stallions in Cadate Gomes Sa, Hassane Kolingar, and Fabien Sanconne.

By way of contrast, Munster made four token substitutions with just three minutes left, including European debuts for Craig Casey and Shane Daly.

When you look back on the away defeats to Saracens and Racing, the significant damage was inflicted over the closing 15 minutes when their bench made impacts. For a variety of reasons, Munster’s just didn’t carry the same influence.

Saracens are now primed to join Racing in the last eight, if that’s what Mark McCall wants. His team selection for Sunday will prove the telling factor here. Despite sending out seriously understrength combinations in all their away pool games, they still control their own destiny with a win over Racing in Allianz Park sufficient to see them advance.

The bottom line is Munster weren’t good enough to avail of their opportunities over the course of the campaign, even when offered a lifeline by the challenges posed for Saracens as a result of their domestic fine and points deduction.

All of a sudden in the most competitive pool in the tournament, Saracens’ commitment to retaining their crown was called into question.

That became clear from the outset with the inexperienced combination McCall sent to Paris for their opening game. Racing capitalised on that with a bonus point win.

Munster found themselves in the pool of death as a result of their finishing position in last season’s Guinness PRO14.

Now that Europe is all but over, van Graan must go bald-headed to win that tournament.

Donal Lenihan: Where has Munster's ability to escape tight spots gone?

To have any chance of making that happen, they have to finish top of Conference B and secure a home semi-final.

The squad will be stressed again during the Six Nations but so will most of the opposition’s. While balancing the need for positive results, this period must also be availed to advance the cause of the younger brigade in Casey, Daly, Healy, and Jack O’Sullivan to accumulate more game time.

Most important of all, Rowntree and Larkham must use this time to impose themselves even more on the squad, outside the glare of the Champions Cup. They deserve more time to influence the group, both individually and collectively.

The foundations for next season must start from the moment the final whistle blows against Ospreys on Sunday.

Securing a top seeding for the Champions Cup draw through results in the PRO14 is key to buying more wriggle room at the pool stage in Europe.

That, along with confirmation from Munster’s new chief executive, Ian Flanagan, that Snyman and De Allende have signed the dotted line for next season, would improve the mood music no end.

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