The rugby world has changed drastically and yesterday proved they will need to get busy in the transfer market. With James Downey and Laulala off to France next season, they need at least one centre. If Perpignan are relegated this weekend, as is predicted, then they may have a look at bringing Lifeimi Mafi back.
However it’s a difficult time to recruit at the moment because there aren’t many quality players about.
Against the multimillionaires of Toulon, they showed the nucleus of a very good team is in place and the old Munster spirit remains. Anthony Foley will relish the chance to take over in the pursuit of another European Cup but the signings they make will tell a lot of their ability to make that happen.
Munster are on an upward curve and there was a big difference between this season’s Heineken Cup semi-final loss and last season’s. Last year they were surprised when they found themselves in a position to beat Clermont, having had a mixed season up until then. This season their form was good and they felt the opportunity was there to beat Toulon who, despite all their superstars, have a tendency not to be ruthless and put teams away when they have their purple patch.
Toulon are more than content to build a scoreline kick by kick, either through penalties or drop goals from Jonny Wilkinson.
To beat them, you must stop that momentum. Toulon dominated the first half but it wasn’t down to the quality of their play. It was because of the penalties Munster were giving away. There was a high tackle from Conor Murray and a couple of breakdown infringements but the scrum caused most of their early woes as Wayne Barnes took issue with David Kilcoyne on the loosehead side and his battle with Carl Hayman in the first half. He penalised Kilcoyne three times which it made it difficult for Munster to gain a foothold at a time when they would have wanted to test Toulon’s mettle.
Another tough one for Munster to take this morning will be the way they restarted the game after kicking points. On one occasion James Coughlan dropped the ball and on another Munster tried to play their way into midfield, opening up the kicking option to Keatley’s right foot or Zebo’s left but CJ Stander ran into contact upright, Matt Giteau dislodged the ball and James Downey picked it up from and offside position. It was an easy kick in front of the posts.
It’s a cliché but you have to retain concentration after every score until you have safely got out off your own half, after the kick off.
It was interesting that Toulon also looked unsure in exiting their own 22. You could guarantee they would run the ball in the first phase and then Wilkinson would kick it out usually around the halfway line. Obviously they were afraid to kick it out and give Munster the throw in, so they tried to keep the kick infield to take away Munster’s attacking platform.
Despite it being predictable it still worked, because Munster struggled to create quality phase play, with both the scrum under pressure and limited lineout opportunities.
Toulon tried to kill Munster off at the start of the second half and it took two brilliant tackles from James Downey on Bryan Habana and a try-saving effort from Zebo on Armitage to protect Munster’s line.
Rob Penney’s message at half time was obviously to have a go and run at Toulon. They tried to, once they got the ball back, but probably tried it from too deep. It stretched Toulon without ever looking likely to really hurt them.
The thing you might not have realised from the television is the sheer size of Toulon. They are incredibly big and strong but that is something teams have used as a weakness against them. When their props were isolated in the wider channels Munster didn’t seem to spot it and were more concerned at getting into their pattern which was quite deep and a long way behind the gainline. It’s difficult to play that wide pattern against Toulon, particularly from right to left, as Habana and his replacement David Smith love to rush in and take man and ball. Munster would have been better playing a same-way pattern using their best ball carriers running flat off Murray on the gain line and making the heavier Toulon players work harder on defence to get into position.
The Munster try changed everything though and gave them a glimmer. Suddenly Toulon were reeling. With 10 minutes to go I thought they should have kicked the penalty when they were five points down, as momentum had swung back in their favour. But these are decisions made in the heat of battle and you have to back your leadership group as they have a feel for how the game is going.
The hunt for next year’s European Cup will begin in the market. It should be interesting.