Munster’s horrible first-half performance against Glasgow at the weekend looms large over Graham Rowntree’s squad as they prepare to fly to South Africa tonight ahead of Saturday’s massive challenge against the Sharks in Durban.
In going 28-0 down to Franco Smith’s side before the interval at Thomond Park three nights ago, and before they rallied to a 38-26 defeat, Munster displayed frailties across the board to set their quest for a top-four finish and a home BKT URC quarter-final draw back several paces with games running out in the league campaign.
More immediately, there is a Heineken Champions Cup Round of 16 tie at King’s Park to negotiate in four days and instead of leaving for Durban with confidence bolstered and a feelgood factor generated by four months of extremely positive performances, Munster will board their plane with fresh question marks over their ability to rebound in such a short timeframe for this severe examination of their credentials from Siya Kolisi and his Sharks.
No wonder head coach Rowntree described this Saturday’s knockout showdown as a “defining moment” in his team’s season. Given the province is just nine months into his tenure and the new broom he came sweeping in with, it must be considered a very real progress check on the developments Munster have made in that time.
The return of captain Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray from the week off which followed their Gram Slam success with Ireland, as well as the reappearance of Antoine Frisch following a minor leg injury and another 20 minutes in the bank for the fit-again RG Snyman will bolster any lingering fragility from the Thomond Park setback as much as those second-half tries scored by Gavin Coombes, Craig Casey, Josh Wycherley and Calvin Nash.
And that can only reassure supporters hoping it is their team’s four-try second-half fightback rather than the cracks that were exposed by Glasgow in that torrid first 40 minutes of rugby that preceded it last Saturday which characterises the response that will come in the high humidity of an early autumn afternoon by the Indian Ocean.
Rowntree said it all boiled down to the fundamental problem of his side’s failure to win collisions but the knock-on effect, not least the knock-ons, was multi-fold and left Munster shellshocked with victory out of their reach by the interval.
The home side’s rare forays into opposition territory frequently came unstuck through poor execution of basic skills in perfect conditions and when the ball went down in front of Glasgow’s posts just before half-time, the opportunity to go in at the break at 21-7 was lost. Instead, through the Warriors’ set-piece dominance – which had already produced a thunderous driving maul try in the sixth minute - their fourth scrum penalty of the opening period provided the platform for the visitors to go in 28-0 ahead and with a try bonus point as wing Cole Forbes emulated centre Stafford McDowall and fly-half Domngo Miotti in all too easily punching a holes in the Munster defence.
Munster flanker John Hodnett summed up the thrust of Rowntree’s analysis.
“Just around the contact area, we were losing too many collisions in attack and defence,” Hodnett said, “and you just can’t win a game when you lose both of those for a whole half and it showed on the scoreboard.
“We just weren’t in it, physicality-wise.”
Hodnett correctly saw the implications that a repeat would bring against the Sharks this weekend.
“Knockout rugby so I suppose there’s no second chances here, so there’s no way we can start like we did this week next week. It’s European knockout rugby so we have to start from the start like, we can’t be feeling our way into the game.”
“We haven’t look at them much but yeah, you look through their pack, they’re all big men, playing big games like big players so we’re going to have to be on it next week to deal with them. Just fronting up physically will be our main thing.”
Of course a poor league outing ahead of a knockout tie was just the sort of backs to the wall environment that fuelled previous wearers of the red jersey to great heights on the European stage and Hodnett channelled that as he cast an eye towards Durban.
“Yeah, look it’s a big challenge but I suppose Munster have a good tradition of coming out in these European games when everything’s against us. So we’re looking forward to it, it’s going to be a really, really tough challenge with the logistics, the different weather, the travel, all this. But we’ll look forward to the challenge next week and that’s all we can do really.”