The Munster head coach will today begin to regroup his beleaguered players ahead of Sunday’s return fixture at Welford Road knowing his side are once again in must-win territory with four games to play if they are to avoid a second successive elimination at the pool stage on his watch.
Yet, several things will continue to gnaw at him in the wake of this three tries to two loss at Thomond Park.
The lack of even a losing bonus point to cushion the blow from a game Munster dominated for long periods. The often pedestrian build-up play which failed to capitalise on the 62% possession his team enjoyed against an English side used to enjoying that kind of ball ownership themselves. The desperately poor execution that, despite that statistic and several more that pointed to Munster being the better side (24 defenders beaten to Leicester’s 15; 142 carries to 71; 546 metres made to 307), led to 13 turnovers and allowed, in Foley’s words, “probably three of the softest tries I’ve ever conceded or watched get conceded”.
The officiating of the Pool 4 match will be another ingredient for any insomnia in the Foley household. Romain Poite’s failure to issue a yellow card to Leicester before the 44th minute, despite a clear sin-binning offence from Ed Slater in taking out Andrew Conway in mid-air left the Munster head coach quietly seething.
The Frenchman and his TMO’s decision not to seek a wider angle to spot Dan Cole’s push on James Cronin which started the domino-effect that led to Conway’s kick chase being blocked was less diplomatically branded “a disgrace.” More of that game-changing decision elsewhere.
What we really need to discuss here is what constitutes Munster and Foley’s deepest-rooted problem. We need to talk ab out Ian Keatley. In the wake of a deeply disappointing performance from the Munster fly-half, which saw him ironically cheered by many in the 22,261 Thomond Park crowd when he was substituted on 73 minutes, his head coach admitted he shared their disappointment, if not the manner in which they expressed it.
Keatley had a bad night on Saturday. He was not alone there, yet his mistakes were the ones most cruelly punished.
He was not the only player who did not stop an attacker in his tracks on a night when Leicester led the missed tackle count 24 to 15, but the fly-half’s failed attempt to halt Niki Goneva out wide led to the opening try six minutes before the interval with the game poised at 6-6.
And it followed a stunning penalty kick miss from virtually in front of the posts, just a couple of metres outside of the Leicester 22. Keatley missed three kicks of his six attempts from the tee, two of which were far from easy conversions of second-half tries out on the left by James Cronin and Mike Sherry. The first miss, though, was awful and his boss could not hide his disappointment at the first in a series of events, including Poite’s momentum-shifting penalty decision and Leicester’s two tries that left Munster trailing 18-6 at half-time.
“You have an international out-half and you want to be getting those, particularly in front of the posts. You definitely want to be getting them,” Foley said.
“Everyone is giving us the points,” he added of the penalty miss, also when the game was tied at 6-6 after 29 minutes. “There is a massive shift in the game. Everyone is giving us the points, you jog back and think about the next job. And suddenly it is missed and you need to reassess and get back on with it and obviously another incident [Poite’s decision] happened after that.
“And then we had the overthrow on the lineout [leading to the second try from Mike Fitzgerald on 39 minutes] and that is the hardest part of it. You want to win your home games, it is very important to get out of the group and we have just given ourselves a mountain to climb.”
That is the lot of a fly-half. Your actions make you either the hero or the villain and, in Keatley’s case, in a week that started with former team-mate and positional rival JJ Hanrahan nervelessly kicking the winning points in Northampton’s Premiership win over Bath and was interrupted by paper talk of an IRFU-instigated switch from Leinster to Munster for in-demand playmaker Ian Madigan, his mistakes on Saturday were magnified several-fold.
In those circumstances, he had Foley’s sympathy.
“We offered JJ a contract. JJ opted to go to Northampton, that’s his decision, that’s fine, everybody has the right of choice,” the head coach said. “The Madigan thing came from Dublin. Nobody in Munster has spoken to Madigan or attempted to speak to Madigan. That can be unsettling for a player, particularly in the week of a big game whether it is the Leinster player or the Munster player holding the jersey.”
Foley had “no idea” whether the speculation had actually unsettled Keatley, a player who has proven his worth on several occasions over the past four and a half seasons but has failed to do it consistently enough for the supporters’ liking. That was evident enough when Foley sent in Rory Scannell as his replacement and Keatley’s exit was marked with that telling cheer.
“That is very disappointing from a very knowledgeable crowd to do that,” Foley said.
Yet, he must continue to try and get the best out of his fly-half as options are limited. Scannell is promising but inexperienced, fellow protégé Johnny Holland, a long-term injury casualty and who should be Keatley’s rival for the number 10 jersey is a source of ongoing fitness concerns.
Former junior All Black Tyler Bleyendaal should be piling all kinds of pressure on Keatley but it is not selection headaches he’s given Foley right now. The New Zealander, who came from Canterbury rehabbing a serious neck injury, now has a troublesome quad muscle in his kicking leg, the problem returning in training on Friday and forcing his withdrawal from the replacements’ bench.
Bleyendaal has made just four appearances since his arrival and his participation at Welford Road next weekend is far from certain. It denies Foley the luxury of making a decision on who fills the number 10 jersey for a must-win game in Europe.
A Conway; K Earls, F Saili, D Hurley (L G Amorosino, 64), S Zebo; I Keatley (R Scannell, 73), C Murray (T O’Leary, 69); J Cronin (D Kilcoyne, 55), N Scannell (M Sherry, 51), BJ Botha (J Ryan, h-t); D Foley (M Chisholm, 55), D Ryan; R Copeland, D O’Callaghan (J O’Donoghue, 71), CJ Stander — captain.
T Veainu; A Thompstone (G Camacho, 79), M Smith, S Bai, V Goneva; O Williams (T Bell, 60), B Youngs (S Harrison, 68); M Ayerza (M Aguero, 76), T Youngs (H Thacker, 78), D Cole (F Balmain, 73); G Kitchener, M Fitzgerald (D Barrow, 71); E Slater — captain (L Pearce, 68), B O’Connor, L McCaffrey.
Romain Poite (France).