Victory over Ulster at Thomond Park on Saturday came at a very costly price for Munster.
The province are now facing an out-half crisis as they enter the most important and demanding part of the season. Joey Carbery is out for several weeks and it looks as if he will now be joined for a similar length of time in the treatment room by in-form JJ Hanrahan after he picked up a hamstring injury in Saturday’s Guinness PRO14 League win over Ulster.
Coach Johann van Graan said he would await today’s report on Hanrahan while warning that “with a hamstring, you have to give it a bit of time. We will look at the scans on Monday”. Tyler Bleyendaal is next in line for the number ten jersey but van Graan’s uncertainty about the situation is so great that he spoke about the possibility of bringing in a ten from outside the current group while he also namechecked centre Rory Scannell, Ben Healy, who has been playing in the All-Ireland League with Garryowen over the last few weeks as options.
The gloom concerning the Hanrahan injury tended to remove the focus from the alarmingly poor second-half display that all but cost Munster defeat in a game they dominated for long spells. While it’s clear the eight players returning from the World Cup disappointment need time to readjust, it is obvious that a repeat of the errors in Saturday’s performance would have disastrous results in the upcoming European Cup games against Ospreys and Racing 92.
“That was our toughest game of the season”, said van Graan. “It was an ugly game of rugby that we will gladly take for Europe. This is what we expected as a group in difficult conditions. It was a good maul and scrum battle, a good Irish derby. We will have a look at our discipline, 12-5 penalties against us is something we want to bring down and we’ll go and look at each penalty individually”.
Van Graan had followed the lead of South African coach Rassie Erasmus in going for a 6-2 forward-backs breakdown in his replacements with a view to not overplaying those who hadn’t featured in recent times and, as he put it: “It’s something we might go to again.”
Munster played the kind of attacking rugby in the first half that would have pleased senior coach Stephen Larkham to lead by 15-6 at the break. But it looked like a game they could actually have lost having fallen 16-15 behind midway through the second half after impressive Ulster hooker Rob Hemming rumbled over for a try converted by the prolific scrum-half John Cooney.
And yet, thanks to Andrew Conway’s magnificent individual try from 40 metres, Munster were in bonus try territory when awarded a penalty three minutes from the finish. Instead, they surprised many when opting for a kick at goal in preference to going for the corner and chasing a fourth try when they already enjoyed a six-point advantage.
“That’s Pete’s call and had Tyler made the kick, we’d have had a two score lead and time to score again,” explained van Graan.
“Since May, you’ve had to change a lot of your systems and in game situations, you get tested. At 15-16, we defended well to get a few turnovers, went through the middle quite a bit, and got a great try from Andrew. It was brilliant the way he worked the space off his wing and it was a very special try and one we’re very glad about.
“You want world-class players in your side and he’s one of those.”
Scorers for Munster: CJ Stander, R Scannell, A Conway tries; JJ Hanrahan pen and con; T Bleyendaal con.
Scorers for Ulster: R Herring try; J Cooney 3 pens, one con.
MUNSTER: M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell, L Coombes; JJ Hanrahan, A Mathewson; J Cronin, N Scannell, J Ryan, J Kleyn, B Holland, P O’Mahony capt, C Cloete, CJ Standler.
Replacements all used: J Loughman, K O’Byrne, S Archer, F Wycherley, J O’Donoghue, C Murray, T Bleyendaal, A Botha.
ULSTER: M Faddes; R Lyttle, L Marshall, S McCluskey, J Stockdale; A Curtis, J Cooney; J McGrath, R Herring capt, M Moore, A O’Connor, S Carter, S Reidy, J Murphy, N Timoney.
Replacements: A McBurney, E O’Sullivan, T O’Toole, K Treadwell, D Shanahan, B Johnston.
Referee: Frank Murphy.