If you are a Munster rugby supporter looking for upsides from the Heineken Cup semi-final loss to Saracens, you’ll be searching for a bit. Here’s a morsel: In terms of their PRO14 chances, the players would have been able to put last Saturday in Coventry to bed pretty rapidly on Monday morning and move on.
Regret is one thing. Reality is a more positive takeaway. In terms of the bigger picture and 2020, Munster has an elephant-in-the-room issue but the chastening loss to Saracens will not impinge on the remainder of this season’s domestic campaign. At least it shouldn’t.
I watched Manchester City win at United on Wednesday. The same sense that dominated the post-match discussion was relevant in the context of Munster and the rugby elite of Europe — they are getting no closer. In fact, Munster are further away now from a European final than we were in 2013 losing that semi-final to Clermont Auvergne, and they have had four attempts since. However the most important thing is to continue to ask the hard questions and hopefully come up with solutions to make a negative into a positive.
It’s not like there’s a huge talent deficiency in Munster. Put Earlsie and Carbery back in that starting XV last Saturday, and it’s an impressive-looking side. But Munster don’t have magic in their mix now. They possess a game and a structure that will steer them through the forest of the pool stage every year, but when it comes to the open prairies, when every weakness is identified and exposed, every strength highlighted, they are short. They lack what I would call a ‘chance-your-arm game’ that on a good day could catch a Saracens.
I was thinking this week that even if you gave Munster a free 80 minutes without the attendant pressures of a European Cup semi-final, I’m not sure which type of game they would play considering the emphasis on box kicking and winning the pressure game.
I think there is more in Munster than we saw last Saturday. That’s the best way of putting it.
Let’s be accurate. The way the semi-final panned out, with Saracens ruling the air, it would have been difficult anyway. Haley’s brave and a good defensive player but if you don’t deal with the aerial challenges posed by Saracens, you are not going to beat them.
It’s not like Munster didn’t know Ben Spencer’s kicking game was coming. There’s a presumption on my part that they would have prepared Haley specifically for it and challenged him accordingly in prep week. The frustration was that Saracens looked more competent in most facets of the game, even those where Munster traditionally excel. That is the most sobering thing about the step-up from coming out of a Heineken Cup pool and challenging the top sides like Leinster and Saracens. Both are increasing the gap between them and the rest of Europe.
This isn’t just an ‘at the moment’ phenomenon. The easy answer says all these things are cyclical, but the age profile of Saracens’ best players and the depth of options available to Leinster indicate there is more to come. The spine of the Saracens team has plenty of juice in the legs. And it’s not like either outfit has come from nowhere this season or last.
Players are influenced by the game plan of their coaches. Earls, Sweetnam and Conway look exciting at times, but it’s not there at the moment. Munster don’t go to width. It’s a pressure-focused game and that’s part of Munster DNA. We have always been strong up front but Munster sides in the past have been able to play ball in hand too and I wouldn’t say they were that superior, man-for-man, compared to the current squad.
Johann van Graan recognises now their game doesn’t work when the heat is really on, so even if Munster had to regress a bit for a short time, then so what? It’s not like they don’t have individual quality to maintain their status as a top four club in Europe. But it’s indisputable after seven successive semi-final losses that they need to tweak things like getting their skill levels up and playing at a higher tempo. They were two scores down with time running short last Saturday and decided to box kick.
It’s the perennial nature versus nurture argument. I am out of Ireland seven years now so I can’t accurately compare Munster and working with the Crusaders. A lot of it does come down to natural ability, but repetition is very important here, there’s a big emphasis on passing in every single session. Working the skillset on a daily basis under pressure is crucial for marginal gains.
Maybe a comparison with Leinster is more relevant. The difficulty is when it comes to Heineken Cup semi-final, Leinster has something key in their locker that Munster can’t buy — confidence, belief, and trust in knowing that their game is good enough to get them over the line.
They get to a certain stage and they find themselves banging their heads against a brick wall. Knocking at the door, but incapable of knocking it down. That’s very demoralising for a professional athlete. You end up questioning yourself and question the methodology of what you are doing.
To have confidence you need to deliver results. And how do you get results? With good players who trust the process, get the performance right and add on all those one per-centers. It’s easier for Leinster to top up the strong foundation they already have for even the most difficult assignments. How many tight battles have those Leinster players got through? The Munster players have yet to get through one of those tight battles. That’s a fact. They are crippled with doubt. I know what it’s like, I was the same from 2000 to 2006.
Where Munster struggled, the way Toulouse play, I always had the feeling they could make it uncomfortable for Leinster in Sunday’s second semi-final, even at 12 points in arrears. You can do that when you’ve a chance-your-arm asset like Cheslin Kolbe on the pitch. But the sturdiness of Leinster was an emphatic exclamation point on the weekend for me. James Lowe typified the energy and intent of the champions, but a word for Luke McGrath. I thought it was his most complete performance in a blue shirt. He absolutely bristled with intent and confidence.
Also a thought on Sean O’Brien in his final Lansdowne Road appearance for Leinster. There’s another few gears in Sean. Once he gets the motor running, he will be sweet again for Ireland come the autumn. That’s something even a frustrated Munster man can get behind.