Peter O’Mahony’s assessment of the areas Leinster are currently leading the way in Irish rugby was as withering of his own team as it was complimentary of his frenemies in blue.
The team that had ended Munster’s bid for a first trophy in seven seasons with a 16-15 Guinness PRO14 semi-final win at Dublin’s RDS on Saturday had underlined they are the standard bearers to which the other Irish provinces must aspire.
Champions Cup final winners over a Racing 92 side which had dumped O’Mahony’s men in red out of Europe at the semi-final stage last month, Leinster had given the Munster captain a salutary lesson about where his side needed to improve if they are to finally scratch that seven-year itch for success in 2018-19.
“I think their basics are something that make them stand out,” O’Mahony said of the double-chasing Leinster.
“Their set-piece, their kicking game. It’s a simple gameplan they play with but it’s incredibly hard to get the ball off them.
“I’d imagine their stats for knock-ons and turnovers is very, very low. They just do basic rugby very, very well and execute excellently. They’ve a huge amount of leadership there and a huge amount of international rugby players who’ve a huge amount of experience and that helps as well. But I think their basics are the difference between them and the next few teams.”
Back to basics then for Munster after an interprovincial knockout derby that had exposed concerning fault-lines between them and their rivals in terms of skills, composure, and game management.
If Munster had executed their gameplan with the accuracy and cool heads with which Leinster had thwarted them then it would be O’Mahony and company who would this week be looking forward to second PRO14 final meeting with Scarlets in as many seasons.
Dropped passes, forward passes, a yellow card, and 14 penalties conceded all served to undermine a Munster performance that should have otherwise been enough to see off Leo Cullen’s side just as an accurate and composed start against Racing 92 last month would have seen them into a first European final since 2008. Yet here they are, a year on from the chastening losses of both a Champions Cup semi-final to Saracens and league decider with Scarlets seeking solutions to problems exposed by the best teams in Europe.
“We’ve got to be better,” O’Mahony said. “You look at the standard Leinster are setting. We’ve got to improve across the board. There are a huge amount of positives to take out of what we have done over the last 12-18 months. But guys have got to understand we have to take another step in a couple of aspects of our game.
“The good thing is that a lot of them are stuff you can improve on.
“The lads will always fight until the end, which is something you can’t change in someone. You’re never far away but the last few steps are the hardest ones to take and we have got to start to learn how to take them.”
It is head coach Johann van Graan who faces the challenge of guiding Munster’s players through those difficult final paces. When the South African returns for pre-season in July he will have benefitted from the extended assessment period he was afforded after taking charge of the squad midway through the 2017-18 campaign following the departure of Rassie Erasmus.
His introduction as a first-time head coach at the age of 37 after a decade as an assistant with the Bulls and the Springboks could have spelt disaster for a squad which has had to adapt to so much upheaval over the last two seasons.
Last year’s run to the Euro semis and PRO12 final was as much to do with the raw emotion of losing head coach Anthony Foley as it was to the improvements made by incoming director of rugby Erasmus and his defence coach Jacques Nienaber.
The defection back to the Springbok camp part-way through their second campaign left Munster, van Graan and the squad in an unenviable position yet to have dug deep and reached the last four of both competitions for the second year in a row says much about the character and resolve of players and management alike.
It would be overstating things to classify 2017-18 as a success but credit is due to van Graan and his team for they have achieved much in his first five-and-a-half months.
He will have used that time to absorb just what it means to be Munster’s head coach and learn about his players under competitive conditions and the white-hot pressure of knockout rugby, an invaluable crash course which should arm him well ahead of his first full campaign at the wheel.
“I think the management and the players have been very open from the first day that I joined,” he said. “We all knew that we need to take Munster forward. We’ve identified quite a few areas in our game that we want to move forward. Obviously, we want to improve our skill set first. We want to build our squad and the most important thing if you look at it is we’ve got to play home semi-finals. I think that’s the biggest difference. You only have to look at Leinster, they’ve played two home semi-finals and that makes a massive difference.
“So we need to get to home semi-finals to give us a shot to get to a final and hopefully win it.”
For now, though, van Graan will attempt to temper the bitter taste of the weekend’s defeat which ended his first half-season in charge by taking as many positives as he can out of Munster’s performance in Dublin.
“We said from day one, we are not going to change a lot in the first six months. I think we moved our plan a bit forward like you saw out there today. Obviously our execution is something we want to work on. We got very close to the two teams that played in the final in Europe. It was a five-point game and one-point game. It’s one score in it. All credit to the players, they fought right until the end. That’s rugby, unfortunately.”
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