It will not be the first time that Munster players have arrived in the Meath town of Enfield to be told some home truths. Yet for the province’s seven players called in to Ireland’s 24-hour training camp at Johnstown House, which disbanded yesterday afternoon, the soul-searching will have been prompted from within rather than externally.
It is eight years since a 22-year-old Rob Kearney stood up in an Ireland team meeting in Enfield and asked why Munster players did not bring the intensity they delivered in red to the green of their national side.
So many seasons down the line and the question might be asked in reverse.
As the Irish Examiner’s Brendan O’Brien pointed out in yesterday’s match commentary from Munster’s 35-14 defeat at Connacht on Saturday night in Galway, there were 11 Irish internationals in the visiting side that so timidly surrendered a 14-6 lead at the Sportsground and consigned the province to an extremely nervy last three weeks of the Guinness Pro12 league campaign.
With two regular season games to go, Munster are not just seven points out of the play-off places in seventh place but also locked in a struggle for a top-six finish which will guarantee Champions Cup rugby in Europe’s top flight next term. Seven of those Munster Test players were called up to Enfield by Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. That is one more than Connacht mustered, despite their epic season that will see them qualify automatically for the Champions Cup for the first time rather than through the success of the other provinces.
A win in Treviso on April 29 will assure Pat Lam’s side of a debut in the Pro12 semi-finals, a home victory over top-four rivals and defending champions Glasgow in the final game on May 7 will book a home draw in that last four.
Munster, though, have some serious work to do to see off their equally desperate rivals and avoid a first full season in the second-tier Challenge Cup. They face two top-six sides in short order, sixth-placed Edinburgh in Cork a week on Friday and then fifth-placed Scarlets at Thomond Park on the last day eight days later.
And after Saturday’s defeat to Connacht, there will be plenty to occupy head coach Anthony Foley and his squad over the next 11 days if the season is not going to end with the previously unthinkable outcome of a Champions Cup draw taking place this summer without Munster’s name in the hat.
Five points behind fifth-placed Scarlets and level on points with Edinburgh but having an inferior points difference, Munster also have a strong-finishing Cardiff Blues outfit closing on their tails, just a point behind the Irish province in eighth place. Fortunately for Foley’s side the fixture schedule favours his out of sorts squad.
When Pro12 play resumes after the European semis, Munster have the advantage of home games against their rivals, Edinburgh at Musgrave Park on April 29 and Scarlets in the final round in Limerick on May 7. The Welsh teams have the small matter of another series of derbies in the penultimate round, the latest Judgement Day at the Principality Stadium featuring the Blues against Ospreys while out of form Scarlets play the Dragons.
Edinburgh’s last game sees them host Cardiff. But first Munster need to get their own house in order...
There have been a number of ongoing issues which have combined to pile misery after misery onto Munster this season and leave them in the predicament they now face.
On paper, their best XV looks as strong as anyone’s, yet time and again they have failed to add up to the sum of their parts, poor game management, failing to transform possession into points, either from the boot or through the hands; turning offence into defence through sloppy turnovers, due to poor discipline or lack of intensity in contact; and drifting in and out of games, unable to sustain consistency through 80 minutes.
All of the above was on display against a terrific Connacht outfit at the weekend as Munster’s weaknesses were cruelly exposed yet again having raced into a two-try lead.
Back-to-back victories against top-six rivals should be enough to see Munster scrape into the Champions Cup draw. They will need other results to get them into the play-off semi-finals but after this season that would be a minor miracle. Yet Munster supporters are no longer even asking for heroics.
Despite being told leadership is not an issue, there is still clearly a vacuum in the absence of the departed Paul O’Connell and defensive linchpin Felix Jones, let alone the long-term sidelining of Peter O’Mahony. The need is paramount for a galvanising influence to take command of the dressing room, instil some intensity and inspire the occupants to do their jobs and execute their roles in the remaining 160 minutes of an otherwise pitiful season. Anything to avoid a chastening exit from Europe’s top table.
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