At this moment, I have no confirmation that La Rochelle’s Champions Cup game at home to Bath on Saturday is going ahead. It looks likely to proceed but who knows? This week’s attempts by EPRC to bring order to the Covid chaos and to provide some semblance of a pathway to the knock-out phase of the tournament will be flushed down the pooper if we have another round affected with cancellations.
These last-minute doubts and postponements are an absolute buzz killer for players and coaches, We have lost fixtures against Bath and Toulon the day before kick-off. It leaves you shattered. You don’t get that emotional release that a game brings to your week. The Top 14 is a long, eleven-month campaign and players (plus coaches) need to vent that emotional energy at the weekend. Some things don’t change - players want games, not training.
The postponement of the Toulon game left La Rochelle without an outlet to release the frustration of our epic defeat to Castres two weeks ago. It left me sitting on the sofa last Saturday with the choice of Munster-Ulster on one channel and Racing 92 v Clermont Auvergne on the other.
We weren’t 15 minutes in when it was painfully obvious I’d chosen badly with Thomond Park. Notwithstanding the Zebo sending off and the influence it had on the game in Limerick, I found it an incredibly hard watch. There was plenty to be critical about but I would be venturing into Pat Spillane on Ulster football territory if I did so. And we want to keep this column constructive.
But there are limits to any attention span. This can’t be what Munster rugby supporters want to see, surely?
Yes, the Munster-Ulster game was played on a wet field in Limerick; the Racing-Clermont game was essentially in a discotheque in Paris but it wasn’t all about the ambience either. The pace, the ambition was like night and day between the two games.
On the one hand, I had Finn Russell putting on an absolute passing exhibition in an indoor arena, compared to a hard day’s night at Thomond (for the viewer). The difference in mindsets was remarkable. I’d understand to a degree if, like the Springboks, this was delivering winning rugby and trophies, but Munster never looked to play the ball into the fifteens at any stage.
See the rough drawing below. No matter how good the defences are, there’s a rule in rugby that if you don’t get the ball into that area you are not stressing the defence. If you do, and frequently, it challenges the defence’s ability to get off the line repeatedly.
The more the ball is in play, the more tempo is in the game - i.e. the more you are pressing a big forward's ability to get off the line and defend. Munster played in that central third. It was like watching rugby from a bygone era.
The most interesting and instructive piece of rugby I’ve seen this year was the victory at Wasps with a patched-up squad littered with rookies. I respect every coaching philosophy and if that is the vision of Munster’s management, you admire it to a point, but it must be pretty restrictive to play that kind of way. Munster’s South African ethos is summed up thus: Maul. Box Kick. Aerial Contest. Play if you win it, defend if you don't.
Far from bringing zest and energy to the half-back areas, I thought Craig Casey and Jack Crowley were laboured and indecisive. There’s a level of irony here in that Conor Murray has been criticised for those things, but the tempo and zip that Casey is supposed to bring was not in evidence against Ulster. Is that a lack of confidence and belief or a restrictive game plan? Munster were bringing the first forward around the corner and playing it behind him in a pre-rehearsed move clearly designed on the basis of something they saw with the Ulster defence. But it was all repetitive, hence predictable and yes, easy to defend.
There is mitigation in the early sending off but conditions were poor against Connacht at the Sportsground too the previous week and Andy Friend’s players were able to get width into their play. You look at Connacht and they play. Look at the Leicester game at Welford Road, and they must have hit ten phases-plus at least 10 times that day. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the self-belief to see it out and put the Tigers away. But with a squad less heralded than Munster’s, they put their phase game together and challenge the defensive line from ruck to the full extremities of the pitch.
It’s not ‘being more expansive’. That’s a glib catch-all. What you want is smart rugby and playing to your strengths. For sure, Munster are being held back at the moment by their inexperience at 10 and being able to figure out how to shape the game to their advantage. But when you look at what Munster has available - Carbery, de Allende, Earls, Conway, Haley Farrell, Murray, Zebo et al – are they playing to their strengths? I haven’t seen nearly enough from Munster in the last two years in terms of going width to width.
There have been moments but nothing on a defined, consistent basis. You look back at what they did to Toulouse last season at Thomond Park – a side that went on to win the Top 14 and Champions Cup double. Munster had French heads spinning so much that day in Thomond Park, playing with tempo, width and a high degree of fitness and accuracy. Damien de Allende was unbelievable.
One has to hope Munster get their due diligence absolutely spot on in the composition of a new management team. There have been too many revolving doors. It may be Declan Kidney as a DOR, with Graham Rowntree and Mike Prendergast sharing the coaching. I genuinely don’t know.
I may be all wrong but some are dreaming if they think Scott Robertson is coming up from New Zealand for the Munster job. People should accept the perception of Munster outside the province is markedly different to that on the inside. The cachet has diminished. There’s been a long, fallow period in which Leinster have become the pre-eminent force of Irish rugby and the one people from other countries reference.
The new management would do well to retain some old Munster virtues - honest, hard-working and intelligent rugby, with a smartness to pull Plan A B or C from the locker. The players are there to make that work.
Munster are in Castres on Friday night looking to make it three from three in the Champions Cup. Interesting that they have gone with Jack Crowley in the pivot. If he's good enough, his birth cert is irrelevant. After a couple of tight-won games, Castres now lie third in the Top 14, and with their team selection for tonight, I’ve no doubt their domestic priorities outweigh European ambition this season. However, they possess a knack of knowing how to win tight games and I’ve said here that they are among the most awkward sides to play in Europe. But Castres primary focus is on staying in the top six in France.
If you’ve been isolating, like so many others, I hope my last visit to Castres has passed you by. The one where La Rochelle were 24-3 and 30-17 up and contrived to lose the game? Bizarrely, with this growth mindset I am nurturing, we prefer to reflect on the opening 30 minutes when I saw a team capable of winning the Bouclier this season.
Our out half Ihaia West missed a couple of late penalties, either one of which would have got us out of there with a victory. I had that kicker’s internal turmoil as the second one sailed right of the posts. We had turned down a kick at goal while 30-17 up, which could have made it a three-score game. Sometimes as a coach you are between the rock and a hard place in terms of letting the players make the decision on the field and getting your tuppence worth down to the pitch via the doctor or sideline runner. I am learning that this is an inexact science and you are all-in on the ultimate call, whether it’s proved right or wrong.
Harry Hindsights, those told-you-so coaches, don’t tend to be very popular in the dressing room. Better, I find, that these things are teased out with the benefit of a few days’ space in the video room. For all concerned.