Yet this Thomond Park victory over a decidedly second-string Ulster outfit on Saturday night left head coach Rob Penney as baffled as he has been at any stage of his still brief tenure in charge at Munster.
A stormy night was no place to expect the slick rugby Penney is trying to integrate into a more-rounded game-plan for the players he inherited last summer, yet as he surveyed an at times laboured performance there was something missing that should be evident under any circumstances — ruthlessness.
Having overcome a sluggish start, Munster scored three tries in the swirling rain either side of half-time to open up a 24-3 lead with 30 minutes remaining.
A fourth try to secure a bonus point seemed a formality, so ascendant were Munster and so down and out did Ulster appear. Yet nothing happened, save for a late converted try from the visitors’ Ali Birch which only highlighted further the home side’s inability to go for the jugular.
With bonus-point wins over both Edinburgh and Racing Metro required in the next three weeks to secure a European quarter-final berth, a killer instinct is exactly what is required.
“The lads have shown what they can do at Heineken Cup level, so it’s not a concern,” Penney said before adding: “But I’d like to think by now we would be a little bit more ruthless around our ability to complete, when we’ve got the pressure on and our foot on the throat and just be a bit more ruthless in there. So today was like the best of us and the worst of us all tied up in the same match.”
That Munster’s first solid passage of play had not come until the 29th minute will be a very definite concern and that when it came it was very good, made it all the more frustrating.
The move saw profit from a strong lineout and maul, an Ian Keatley burst and strong running from Denis Hurley on his 100th Munster appearance before man of the match Tommy O’Donnell was held up to earn the five-metre scrum that led to a deserved penalty try for the Munster pack.
The Ulster scrum-half Paul Marshall was sin-binned for raking Donncha O’Callaghan five minutes from the break and a 10-3 interval lead was extended thanks to a fast start after the break, Simon Zebo speeding through a strung-out defence before Peter O’Mahony, driven on by O’Donnell, delivered a third try by shunting through the visitors.
Then, well, nothing much more.
“After we scored that third try I don’t think we got into their 22 for 30 minutes,” Billy Holland said when asked to explain that lack of ruthlessness.
“We’re disappointed with that aspect of it. We came out all guns blazing in the second half, had a great 10 or 15 minutes, we took our foot off the pedal. Ruthlessness is a mindset and it’s a habit and we possibly didn’t show enough of it.
“It’s something we’ve got to focus on. We’re delighted with our four points but, 30 minutes to go, you need one more try and we didn’t get it, it’s slightly disappointing ... ruthlessness is something we have to work on.”
Whether that particular asset is something one can work on is something Penney has to figure out.
“It’s interesting,” he said.
“It’s a sort of a mental toughness thing isn’t it? And I don’t think even some of the greatest psychologists in the world... they debate whether you can teach it or whether you’re born with it.
“I think a bit of it comes with confidence and with experience and knowing how to battle your way through a little bit of adversity and come out with a positive outcome.
“So, we try to [teach it] and some people grasp it and understand it and move on and some people never make it.”
Just who among this Munster squad has it, or can grasp the concept, and which of them will fall by the wayside, Penney may be about to find out.
MUNSTER: D Hurley; D Howlett – captain (F Jones, 65), C Laulala, J Downey (R O’Gara, 51), S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray (P Stringer, 68); W du Preez (M Horan, 63), D Varley, BJ Botha (S Archer, 51); Donncha O’Callaghan, B Holland; P O’Mahony (J Coughlan, 64), T O’Donnell (Dave O’Callaghan, 70), P Butler.
Replacement not used: M Sherry
ULSTER: A D’Arcy; C Cochrane, M Allen, L Marshall, C Gilroy (R Andrew, 70); N O’Connor (S Olding, 60), P Marshall (M Heaney, 68); C Black (T Court, 57), R Herring (N Annett, 57), A Macklin (R Lutton, 67); L Stevenson (A O’Connor, 67), N McComb; R Diack, M McComish (A Birch, 57), R Wilson – captain.
Yellow card: P Marshall 35th minute.
Penalties conceded: Munster 14 Ulster 13.
Referee: Alain Rolland (IRFU)