The green shoots of recovery appear to have sprung at Munster if their performance at the weekend is any indication.
And no more emblematic of the improvement, after a miserable run of form, was the way the province’s pack slowly turned the tide at scrum-time during the 26-13 bonus-point win over Stade Francais last Saturday.
A final Champions Cup pool game of the season looms this Sunday when Anthony Foley’s men travel to winless Treviso and, though qualification for the quarter-finals is beyond them, bar some perfect mathematical storm, the head coach will be looking for further evidence from his players that the corner has finally been turned.
One of those indicators will certainly be the set-piece where the lineout and scrum have experienced torrid times at the hands of Leicester and Stade Francais in Europe over the past four games, even in victory.
A lineout malfunction led to a crucial try by the Tigers in defeat at home in round three when the scrum at Thomond Park did not get a look in, Munster not getting a put in and suffering on opposition ball.
The scrum responded positively for the return leg in England but suffered during the rearranged game at Stade Francais.
The French champions had Munster under the cosh again last weekend only for Munster to redress the balance at maul-time, hooker Mike Sherry scoring the opening try from the back of the drive.
It has been swings and roundabouts and a reminder of how teams can live and die by their set-piece, as Foley alluded to when describing Saturday’s battles there.
“I think we needed to get to grips with what they were doing and what they were getting away with,” the head coach said. “I was pulling my hair out. At one stage we were going backwards and they wheeled the scrum and they get a penalty.
“Then we were going forwards, and they wheel the scrum and they get the penalty.
“You’re trying to figure out what they (the officials) are looking at.
“(Referee JP Doyle) would have come out of the World Cup with a big reputation for clamping down on stuff like that. He seemed to let them get away with a lot.
“I suppose our focus was what they were getting out of their scrum, could we get out of our maul.
“They were easily able to move up the pitch through their scrum in terms of scrum penalties, then a set-piece in our half.
“We needed to flip that around, if we got a lineout in our half; get a maul, get a penalty, get back into their half.
“We tried to manage that and it becomes a psychological, physiological battle out there at times in terms of where you can get your one-up on.
“Around the pitch, both teams were pretty even in terms of both teams wanting to play the game and both teams being physical.
“We started to edge it and, when we started to edge the scrum, the balance truly changed.”
If Munster are to continue their set-piece improvement, it is clear they are going to have to do it without the on-field services of veteran Springbok tighthead BJ Botha, who appears to have played his last game for the province after rupturing his anterior cruciate knee ligaments at Stade Jean Bouin nine days ago.
“He’s been a great servant for us and he’s in and around the group at the moment,” Foley said of Botha.
“He’s a very good character, he demands a lot around the scrum and the maul particularly; he loves that part of the game.
“Now, while he’s waiting for his operation, he’ll be a voice in and around it.”
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