IF that merited win over Ulster at Ravenhill nine days ago represented a step forward in what was proving an already challenging season, Saturday’s depressing Champions Cup defeat at the hands of Stade Francais constitutes a series of giant leaps backward.
From my commentary perch high up in the magnificently revamped Stade Jean-Bouin, the pointed concrete columns of the neighbouring Parc de Princes, graveyard of so many Irish sides from the 1970s through to the early 90s, offered a stark reminder of what the bad days for Irish rugby once felt like.
The advent of the Heineken Cup, the emergence of our provincial sides as a European force, and the manner in which, through regular exposure to the top French clubs, they came to terms with what was required to win on foreign soil, helped in no small way towards the national side conquering those demons when it came to beating France, even in Paris.
That is what makes Munster’s second-half capitulation in the French capital, against a decent but far from outstanding Stade Francais side, even harder to take.
Prior to Saturday they had won just five of their 12 outings in the Top 14 and currently lie fourth from bottom.
Munster’s defence, the foundation stone of that notable victory over Ulster, fell into disarray. What makes it more damning was that it cannot be put down to a systems failure or any outstanding play from the hosts, just an appalling inability to execute basic one-on-one tackles.
The tries conceded to Sekou Macalou, an academy player within the Stade ranks, and Hugo Bonneval will haunt a plethora of Munster players including Ian Keatley, CJ Stander, Keith Earls, Francis Saili, and Simon Zebo for a long time to come. The disease spread like a plague in a matter of minutes. It was astonishing to watch players who had defended with such assurance in the opening half fall off their individual tackles so easily.
Only last March, Macalou starred for the French U20 side against their Irish counterparts, scoring a very similar try from distance to the one that ripped Munster apart on Saturday. After his performance that night in Athlone, I wondered how long it would take him to break into top class rugby. Little did I think that the pace and athleticism so evident that night would be utilised so quickly to wreak havoc on Irish opposition.
Sadly the writing was on the wall for Munster even before that second-half defensive torpor set in, when failings that have haunted the side all season, a failure to translate periods of dominance on the scoreboard, was repeated once again.
Despite the sending off of Stade winger Josaia Raisuqe for gouging Stander on the stroke of half-time, Munster were in trouble heading to the dressing-room 10 points in arrears. With a bench packed with players of higher quality than several chosen to start by head coach Gonzalo Quesada, Munster needed to be ahead at the break.
Stade were perfectly positioned to strike. The fact that three of the Munster bench were called to arms even before the first quarter elapsed, meant they were put at a massive disadvantage when the cavalry were unleashed off that Stade bench straight after the resumption.
It was a sad indictment of Munster’s attacking play that Stade were content to play with only six backs in that second half, refusing the option of substituting one of their forwards and introduce a back to fill the void left on the wing by the loss of Raisuqe. Instead they made a conscious decision to go after Munster in the set-piece by cranking up their scrum and reintroducing their lineout maul. Both worked spectacularly.
When Munster finally attacked the space left out wide, manufacturing a three-on-one overlap after some good build-up play, they somehow managed to butcher a clear try-scoring opportunity for Rory Scannell by crabbing across the field. In the end a forward pass by Saili, of all people, denied Scannell his moment of glory. There were times during that dispiriting second half when Munster looked the side numerically disadvantaged.
Once again the shortage of leaders in the side was painfully highlighted with Munster pushing the panic button far too early after the break when, still only 10 points in arrears, they resorted to trying to run their way out of trouble from far too deep. That lack of composure was painful to watch.
It didn’t help that the scrum was under enormous pressure even before Stade introduced Springbok and ex-Leinster Heineken Cup winner Heinke van der Merwe off the bench at loosehead prop along with possibly the best tight head in the world, Rabah Slimani. Almost every scrum from that point forward resulted in a penalty for Stade and, more often than not, three points from the metronomic boot of Morne Steyn.
Unfortunately when Munster were offered similar opportunities in the opening half, Keatley’s problems off the kicking tee resurfaced after appearing to conquer those demons in Belfast last weekend. The fact that Scannell landed a very difficult conversion of Conor Murray’s late second-half try with relative ease only served to highlight Keatley’s first-half profligacy.
When a French side smell a weakness in your scrum they will look to pulverise you.
Stade continued that fine tradition and dismantled Munster in that department. That serves to tear the heart out of a side.
The manner in which the Munster heads dropped in the final quarter was alarming and not something you see very often. They will find it very difficult to recover from this.
All of this after Munster had negotiated the hard bit when playing with great confidence and assurance in the opening quarter despite losing BJ Botha, Andrew Conway, and Tommy O’Donnell to injury.
The set-piece was coping well, Munster were manufacturing energetic turnovers and getting on the right side of referee Nigel Owens. The home crowd were silenced and subdued and Stade looked the distinctly ordinary outfit.
You began to wonder if they had any real focus on Europe at that stage.
Unfortunately the sending-off of Raisuqe forced Stade into playing a tighter, set-piece orientated game and Munster just couldn’t cope.
That dismissal ultimately proved more of a help than a hindrance to the Parisians.
The challenge facing Munster now is that there is no short-term fix.
The problems, on a variety of levels, run far too deep for that. The prospect of even more empty seats in Thomond Park for next weekend’s dead rubber against Stade now looks a depressing reality.
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