The more things change, the more they stay the same. Different tournament, same drama. Munster are simply incapable of doing things the easy way.
The biggest plus from this performance was that having dug a very deep hole for themselves in the opening 40 minutes, Munster found the means to work their way out of a very awkward situation. That will stand to them.
Given that Saracens won their opening game against Clermont Auvergne, capturing a four try bonus point on the way with the French visitors also securing a losing bonus point, Munster simply had to rescue this one or their chances of getting out of an extremely challenging pool would have evaporated on the opening day.
Sixteen points down at the break, their only friend at that stage was a very strong wind that would support their efforts to establish territory in the second half. Anthony Foley impressed on his players at half-time that it was vital to make maximum use of the elements. Munster responded with 20 points after the break.
That Ian Keatley was the one to pull the trigger and rescue the points at the death will work wonders for his confidence and was entirely fitting given that his two wondrous touch line conversions of tries by Andrew Conway and Conor Murray put Munster in the position to pull the game out of the fire with a last-gasp drop goal.
However, Munster should never have found themselves in that position and once they found their rhythm up front and retained possession, Sale looked capable of crumbling.
When Foley reviewed the video of Northampton’s defeat of Sale last week, he must have found it difficult to contain himself. Based on their performance in Franklins Gardens, Sale were deficient in just about every area where Munster excelled.
Therefore the big question entering Saturdays encounter at the AJ Bell Stadium was could Sale be as passive again at the breakdown, as ineffective out of touch and as brittle in the scrum? When Dave Kilcoyne burrowed over for Munster’s opening try nine minutes, it suggested that could well be the case.
For some inexplicable reason, after the game was held up for a long spell when French referee Mathieu Raynal went down with a knee injury which forced his departure after 15 minutes, Munster completely lost their concentration, shape, defensive structure and organisation. It didn’t help either that his replacement Laurent Cardona looked way out of his depth.
There was a complete breakdown in communication in midfield between Denis Hurley and Andrew Smith, leading to several line breaks from Samoan international Johnny Leota who couldn’t believe the space he was being offered.
If that happens against a Clermont midfield drawn from any combination of Aurelian Rougerie, Jonathan Davies, Wesley Fofana and Benson Stanley then there will be no way back. The Saracens midfield will not be found wanting either. Munster missed 10 tackles in a hugely damaging opening half before steadying the ship with just two more in the second half.
One of the challenges facing Foley is knowing it is impossible to produce the type of breakdown blitzkrieg they unloaded on Leinster a few weeks ago week on week. It doesn’t help either if the referee isn’t interested in allowing a contest in the contact area. How do you cope when that happens given the lack of game breakers behind the scrum? Simon Zebo is carrying that mantle almost single-handedly and needs support.
Munster’s physicality was nowhere near the level of the Leinster game a few weeks ago and once the home forwards recognised they could compete with their much vaunted visitors on equal terms in the maul and on the deck, they grew in stature and confidence.
Luckily for Munster, Sale had neither the composure, experience or tactical acumen to close the deal even if they were within one score of doing so. That should have been delivered early in the second half but was thwarted by a crucial tackle by Duncan Casey on Danny Cipriani under Munster’s posts. Had the England fly half managed to get his pass away, Sale appeared certain to score and there would have been no way back.
Another challenge for Munster is when they are denied a line out platform they find it very difficult to launch their patterns. Sale managed to do just that, offering Munster only seven deliveries over the 80 minutes. By way of comparison, Sale hooker Marc Jones fed the line out on 16 occasions.
That is a big disparity possession stakes.
Munster did very well to pilfer four of those with Peter O Mahony the poacher in chief. The captain showed remarkable endurance to last the 80 minutes having looked out on his feet entering the third quarter with no appreciable game time under his belt after his two recent shoulder reconstructions.
It is that type of resilience and refusal to give up that has seen Munster pull so many contests of this nature out of the fire at the last minute. That said I was somewhat bemused by the failure to introduce Robin Copeland off the bench in the crucial final quarter to support the barnstorming runs that delivered yet another man of the match performance for the ever improving CJ Stander.
With 20 carries and 104 metres made he was a colossus.
When the need was greatest the South African was the one to lead the charge, singling out Cipriani for special attention. Munster should explore the option of withdrawing him from attacking line outs and use him as a trail runner off the two centres in the manner David Wallace did so effectively for Munster for years. Otherwise line breaks will become even harder to come by.
Later that evening Ulster were brought crashing to earth down the road at Welford Road as a resurgent Leicester showed signs that when their full compliment of injured players return they will be as competitive as ever. It didn’t help the Ulster cause that their line out experienced a complete systems failure.
The big difference from Ulster’s pool win at the same venue last January was the absence at half back of Ruan Pienaar. Paddy Jackson struggled without the assured presence of the Springbok while his replacement Paul Marshall was guilty of over playing his hand at times.
Despite playing at home next weekend things aren’t about to get any easier with Saracens and Toulon next up for Munster and Ulster respectively. One thing is very obvious, even at this early stage of this new, more competitive tournament. Every single point scored and accrued over the course of the pool stage will be absolutely vital. While Munster simply had to win in Manchester, Ulster will draw solace from a crucial losing bonus point which keeps them on track.
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