Watching Munster on Saturday was both frustrating and exciting. The excitement came in a performance that gave glimpses of the talent and potential that lies in a squad loving life and enjoying its work under the province’s new coaching ticket.
What frustrated was that against a top-quality Racing side, Munster needed, and will need in the coming weeks of this Heineken Champions Cup pool of death campaign, more than mere glimpses of that promise.
Following this absorbing, nail-biting draw with the Parisians in Limerick came the realisation that even stiffer challenges than this lie in store for a Munster side on the rise having committed to a better-skilled, more multi-faceted gameplan being implemented by Johann van Graan and senior coach Stephen Larkham, but with some way still to go before it can deliver on its potential.
Saracens will be next to visit Thomond Park in less than a fortnight, followed by European away days at both Sarries and Racing. The key for Munster will be to avoid being down and out in both London and Paris but the question is whether the necessary tools to complete the job will be in place so soon.
Because for all the delight experienced by the quick hands of Chris Farrell and the invention of JJ Hanrahan, including the long and magnificent left to right pass out to Andrew Conway that led to the game-saving try six minutes from time, there were just as many misplaced passes, dropped balls and runs up blind alleys.
For the clinical finishing of tries by Ireland wings Keith Earls and Andrew Conway, continuing the latter’s red-hot scoring streak, there other visits to the Racing 22 that ended in frustration and wasted opportunity while the visitors had the honed skillsets and imaginations to scythe through Munster’s defences at any given moment with Finn Russell, Teddy Thomas and Juan Imhoff all producing excellent tries.
It was Hanrahan’s equally accomplished and nerveless touchline conversion of Conway’s 74th-minute try that levelled the scores after Racing had managed to stay one or two steps ahead of the home side for most of this contest. Yet also a similarly pressurised drop-goal attempt minutes later that was pulled wide that saw victory slip from Munster’s grasp.
Still, we are seeing an ambition and intent from Larkham’s new charges previously kept hidden for fear of altering the tried and tested Munster DNA. On van Graan’s watch, and at Larkham’s bidding, the shackles are coming off.
“From a Munster growth point of view we as coaches just spoke inside that some of the things we’ve done tonight are some of the things you won’t have seen Munster do in the previous few years,” van Graan said.
“The one lineout where we went off the top (early in the second half, leading to a Hanrahan penalty that levelled the game at 14-14) it’s something you wouldn’t have seen from us before.” But here lies the rub: “I said a few weeks ago that you’ve got to give this coaching team some time. We’ve only been together for a few weeks and we are looking long-term and looking to improve the team and looking to improve the skills of this team. So yes, we are going to throw one or two like we did tonight that is going to lead to turnovers and if you look from a clinical rugby point of view we have done some incredible stuff over the last few weeks. That will take time but we are encouraging the players to use their skills and to improve their skills.
The performances of Hanrahan at fly-half and man of the match full-back Mike Haley came in for special attention given the adventure they brought to their roles but their respective journeys to this point underline the need for patience.
It took Hanrahan the bones of two seasons since his return from Northampton Saints to regain the fitness, confidence and consistency he is displaying now while Haley by his and van Graan’s admission is only now finding his feet following a move from Sale Sharks 18 months ago.
“JJ just came back from an injury and obviously he played 80 minutes tonight and you know, one of the things we decided is we have got to make our fly-halves fitter and he certainly did that to come from an injury and deliver an 80-minute performance like that, the same with Mikey. He’s in his second season with us.
“Steve has said so many times in the last few weeks that he’s a champion of a man and that’s why I got him to Munster and his experience and the way he talks specifically to the backs he gives them confidence. We are trying different things and in the next few months and years we will become a very good rugby team.”
The next few weeks may be a different matter. The perfect performance is, we are told, unattainable but something special is undoubtedly in the making from this Munster squad.
However, for those hoping for a safe passage from Pool 4 into the knockout phases this season, it is going to have to happen sooner rather than later and that may be asking a little too much.
MUNSTER: M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell, K Earls; JJ Hanrahan, C Murray (A Mathewson, 61); J Loughman (J Cronin, 49), N Scannell (K O’Byrne, 65), J Ryan (S Archer, 54); J Kleyn (F Wycherley, 54), T Beirne (B Holland, 61); P O’Mahony - captain, J O’Donoghue (A Botha, 54), CJ Stander.
Replacement not used: D Goggin RACING 92: S Zebo; T Thomas (B Dulin, 64), V Vakatawa, H Chavancy - captain, J Imhoff; F Russell, T Iribaren (A Gibert, 80); E Ben Arous (H Kolingar, 54), C Chat (T Baubigny, 54), C Gomes Sa (A Oz, 54); D Ryan, D Bird (F Sanconnie, 58); W Lauret, B Palu, A Claassen (Y Tanga, 80).
Replacement not used: B Volavola Referee: Matthew Carley (England)