- Donal Lenihan: Irish Examiner, April 24, 2017
We’ve been down this road before, on seven different occasions now since Paul O’Connell, in tandem with Ronan O’Gara, lifted the Heineken Cup aloft in Cardiff 11 years ago after Munster beat the tournament’s greatest side to that point in a memorable 16-13 win over Toulouse.
That was a special group of players, with 11 of Munster’s match-day squad that day going on to feature in Ireland’s Grand Slam winning squad back in Cardiff 10 months later.
It’s been difficult for Munster to reach those heights since but, slowly and surely, gradual gains have been made. Reaching the last four in Europe, three years in a row, is no mean feat. What other clubs in Europe would give to be able to match that level of consistency.
I wrote the above paragraph in the immediate aftermath of Munster’s 26-10 semi-final defeat to Saracens at the Aviva Stadium two years ago to this day. Despite the marginal gains made since then, the exact same thoughts gripped my mind during the half-time break last Saturday.
There are times when there is absolutely no shame in defeat and Saturday’s latest in the long line of semi-final defeats for Munster in Europe is one such occasion. Saracens are a stronger and better balanced side than Munster at present and have more strings to their bow.
Going into last weekend’s game, I felt the Londoners would have to fall well short of the standard they set against Glasgow Warriors in the 56-27 trouncing of the Scots in their quarter-final for Munster to win. They were outstanding that day, scoring seven tries against an opponent that Munster could yet meet in the Guinness PRO14 final in their home city at Celtic Park.
For that to happen, Munster will have to navigate a few hurdles that could incorporate a face off against Leinster in Dublin, depending on results next weekend. Even then, a clash with Glasgow would amount to no more than a 50/50 contest at best.
Saracens dispatched Glasgow with contemptuous ease in that quarter-final.
Anyone citing an unfair advantage given that they play on a 4G artificial pitch at Allianz Park needs to think again. Glasgow play on the same surface at Scotstoun.
Some were even grasping at straws in advance of the semi-final, citing the fact that Saracens had lost five away games on the trot in the Gallagher Premiership, with all of those defeats played on a traditional grass surface. Wishful thinking.
Saracens outstanding head coach Mark McCall has been assiduously managing the workload of his players, and in particular those involved on international duty throughout the Six Nations, specifically with the demands of the Champions Cup in mind. Regaining that trophy has been their main target all year.
For Munster to have made the semi-finals of Europe for the third year in a row is a highly creditable achievement. Just think about that for a second. Despite the vastly superior budget’s available to clubs in the Gallagher Premiership and the Top 14 in France, Munster have been consistently better than 16 of the 20 European clubs that set out in search of Champions Cup glory at the outset of every season.
Three of those clubs have been that bit better than Munster throughout the period with Saracens and Leinster claiming the top prize on all three of those occasions. Racing 92 were the only side to defeat Munster at the penultimate stage not to go on and win the final. Even then, Racing pushed Leinster all the way in last season’s decider in Bilbao, despite losing Dan Carter on the eve of the final and his replacement, Springbok No 10 Pat Lambie, just nine minutes into the game.
The bottom line is that the other three semi-finalists in the last three seasons had Munster’s measure. Munster’s game is built around a rock solid set piece, on winning the aerial battle, being dominant in the collisions leading to superiority at the breakdown and an outstanding defensive structure that has conceded just 11 tries in eight Champions Cup clashes this season.
Restricting Saracens to two tries at the Ricoh Arena was an achievement in itself. The problem for Munster is, once you arrive at the semi-final stage, you must not only be able to stop the opposition scoring tries but you have to be able to score them yourself.
Unfortunately the vast majority of Munster’s five pointers in those recent semi-finals have come in what the Americans call “garbage time” — that period after the contest has been decided.
In the 2017 game against Saracens at the Aviva Stadium, CJ Stander scored Munster’s one and only try in the 79th minute. In Bourdeaux last year, Rhys Marshall and Andrew Conway scored in the 75th and 80th minutes respectively. Three tries, in garbage time, that had no influence on the outcome of the game.
Munster’s sole try last Saturday from Darren Sweetnam might well have been disallowed had referee Jerome Graces spotted Jack O’Donoghue’s boot dislodging the ball at the base of the Saracens scrum. Apart from that, Munster never really threatened the Saracens line.
Having the facility to bolster your pack with two Springboks and a Wallaby, as Saracens did last Saturday, highlighted again the financial resources they have at their disposal. Munster simply don’t have that purchasing power.
Given that Munster are forecasting a deficit in excess of €1m for this season, it comes as no surprise that Johann van Graan confirmed after Saturday’s game that, apart from Leinster scrum-half Nick McCarthy, Munster will not be making any additional signings for next season. As a result of McCarthy’s arrival, Alby Mathewson will depart in November after covering for Conor Murray during the World Cup.
A big investment was made last season with the arrival of Joey Carbery, Tadhg Beirne, Mike Haley, Arno Botha, and Mathewson. Both Carbery and Beirne were nominated for the Munster player of the year award, a reflection of the impact both have made in their maiden season.
Carbery was a huge loss last weekend, as was Keith Earls, but you need to be able to absorb those losses to be able to go all the way at this level. Simon Zebo’s presence in attack from full-back has been sadly missed all season while Saracens clearly targeted Haley under the high ball from the outset in Coventry.
I have been beating the drum for some time now but surely the time has come for Andrew Conway to be given a chance to employ his counter-attacking ability from full back. His aerial skills are well proven and were underlined once again at the Ricoh Arena with one brilliant take over his head, despite being placed under big pressure from David Strettle.
If the playing personnel isn’t going to change for next season, then something else has to. There is no question that Munster need to ask more questions of the opposition once in possession. Both Leinster and Saracens had the capacity to challenge the Toulouse and Munster defence by always having a variety of attacking options open to them.
At this level Munster are not going to pummel the opposition up front like they regularly do during the pool phase. Dominant defences do win trophies but teams also need to be able to stress those defensive formations and create mismatches when in possession.
Munster have yet to arrive at that point. Until they do, making it beyond the top four will remain an issue. If things don’t change... you know the script by now.