And so it was on Saturday that the inner military historian in Munster head coach Rob Penney emerged as he tried to come to terms with an embarrassing, self-inflicted defeat by his team in the Scottish capital.
Munster may have begun this Heineken Cup campaign on the road but the nature of their 29-23 defeat to the RaboDirect Pro12’s bottom of the table team could not be considered as anything other than a shock. Six wins in succession for the Irish province over Edinburgh, including a bonus-point victory in the league last month, had marked this trip to Murrayfield as the ideal place to plunder some away points and get the Pool 6 qualification process up and running heading into more testing challenges against Gloucester and Perpignan.
Those were feelings reinforced by Munster’s own start to the season which was encouraging as Edinburgh’s was miserable. The Scots had won just once in five matches while the Reds had just knocked over old rivals Leinster for the first time in two and a half years for their fourth win out of five.
So when Edinburgh, marshalled by scrum-half and captain Greig Laidlaw, withstood wave after wave of Munster pressure in the first half, and actually reached the interval 19-17 to the good before snatching a late Tim Visser try in the midst of the visitors’ mounting error count and poor decision-making, Penney made no hesitation in placing the blame at the door marked complacency.
Penney described Munster’s problem as “victory disease”, a phrase coined after Japan’s 1942 naval defeat at the Battle of Midway, which brought to an end a string of successful victories in the Pacific and South-East Asia.
The Munster management had been anxious to avoid their players sleep-walking into Murrayfield and assuming victory was assured but the message most definitely did not sink in.
“It’s something when you’re looking from the outside in, because you can’t read the minds of the players but there was certainly a malaise and a lack of spark there at half-time, which is massively dangerous from my perspective when you see that,” Penney said. “That only comes from poor mental preparation.
“We trained really well. You’re always second guessing yourself when it comes to a performance like this about what could you have done differently during the week. They didn’t over train, that’s always a concern, they didn’t get bogged down with a lot of tactical stuff, so we went into the game with pretty clear heads and it was up to the boys to prepare themselves.
“We talked at the start of the week, you know, there’s a famous occurrence in the Battle of Midway about the victory disease — when you’ve had a few good performances and all of a sudden you get blind-sided because you’re a bit, I hate the word ‘complacent’ but that’s probably the right one. We talked about that early in the week and that obviously didn’t work, that discussion.”
Munster had been on the back foot from the off, when Edinburgh centre Matt Scott opened the visiting defence for the first try of the game in the sixth minute, with a Laidlaw conversation and penalty pushing Alan Solomon’s side into a 10-0 lead after 11 minutes. Ian Keatley got Munster’s first points on the board with a penalty four minutes later. They were level in the 20th when Donnacha Ryan made a burst towards the line and having gone through some patient phases, Conor Murray zipped a flat pass for Casey Laulala to run onto, his good hand and footwork conjuring the try from five metres out, gifting Keatley a simple conversion.
Laidlaw was keeping the Edinburgh score ticking over but Munster were in the ascendancy in terms of possession and territory and when Mike Sherry picked and went off the base of a ruck for a second try on the 25-minute mark, pre-match predictions seemed set to become reality.
Yet Penney had already received bad vibes.
“We seemed flat. They scored their first try on some pretty soft defence. They made some yards around some pretty soft defence and that’s always a massive indicator for me about where we are emotionally.”
Worse was to come for Munster, though. Two more Laidlaw penalties had edged Edinburgh 19-17 in front at the break with two in reply from Keatley after it putting Penney’s men four points up at 23-19 with 16 minutes to go. Yet mistakes were happening everywhere. Munster’s lineout, formidable all season, fell apart, undone by Edinburgh’s Grant Gilchrist and Sean Cox, and the error count kept mounting.
That put Edinburgh on the front foot and nudged them into the Munster half, putting the visiting defence under further pressure and producing more errors, the worst of which came when substitute fly-half JJ Hanrahan elected to chip his way out of trouble deep in his own half. He was taken out, fairly according to the video review, but it was a kamikaze move — and ironically at the same end of the Murrayfield pitch where Ronan O’Gara’s Test career had foundered with a rash crossfield kick against Scotland in last season’s Six Nations — and Gilchrist gathered, pumped a pass to Visser, who had too much pace for the Munster defence.
“We were working our way back into it quite well and got ourselves into a position where we should have been able to nail that off and we couldn’t,” Penney said. “They applied a bit of pressure, we make a bit of a clumsy decision and they score a try and all of a sudden, tails up and the fight’s on. We’ve often seen games of footy that are challenging to pull back with 10 minutes to go when you’re that far behind.”
And so it proved. Munster lost their first game last season, to Racing Metro, but left Paris and then Saracens with a bonus point from each away defeat before beating Edinburgh on the road en route to the semi-finals, so all is not lost. But after Racing last year, Penney had the luxury of facing a down-at-heel Edinburgh side at home next up. This time it will be Gloucester, and having beaten Perpignan in their opener on Saturday, the English side will be a much sterner test of character for the Munster players.
EDINBURGH: J Cuthbert; D Fife, N De Luca, M Scott, T Visser; H Leonard, G Laidlaw (capt); A Dickinson (L Blaauw, 70), R Ford, W Nel (G Cross, 70), G Gilchrist, S Cox, D Basilaia (R Grant, 61), C Du Preez, D Denton
Replacements not used: A Lutui, O Atkins, S Kennedy, J Dominguez, S Hidalgo-Clyne
MUNSTER: F Jones (JJ Hanrahan, 66); K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey (D Hurley, 11-13, 61), S Zebo (D Williams, 72); I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (J Cronin, 53), M Sherry (D Varley, 56), S Archer (BJ Botha, 53); D Ryan, P O’Connell (capt); P Butler (CJ Stander, 55), N Ronan (D O’Callaghan, 65), J Coughlan
Referee: JP Doyle (England).