What a disappointment! So many good players played well below a level that they’d deem acceptable, and referee Nigel Owens turned in a poor performance that threw soapy water on an already stuttering fire.
Owens genuinely deserves criticism for his refereeing of the scrum. There were so many problems, be it the excessive distance at engagement, or the regular failure to take the hit or the consistent hinging and dipping … well, there’s so much there. It was a p*ss-poor refereeing performance on that one particular issue, but there was a general derogation of the referee’s authority in a situation and a context where decisiveness was everything.
RADGE! – How Long Is He Going To Play This Week?
The Mole has spoken before of his belief that ROG can play at Pro12 level for as long as he has the hunger, but despite his big mascot smile on exiting the tunnel, he didn’t look like he was enjoying himself at all as the game unfolded. He has always been a weak defender of his channel, and Leinster old-timers Gordon D’Arcy, Shane Jennings and Brian O’Driscoll made yardage through him all night long.
D’Arcy seemed particularly revitalised after a Six Nations campaign that was extremely poor by his standards; any time you have a slump in form in your thirties, people are only too keen to write you off as finished, but he looked as though there was life left in him on Saturday night. The Munster game came at just the right time for him. It must have been a real fillip, giving him the opportunity to get his confidence up by simply targeting ROG and running at him again and again.
O’Gara’s kicking display – both from the hand and from the tee – confirmed something The Mole has felt for quite a while: he’s lost a yard per season since 2006. The reason the Mole gives that as the starting date is because of the reputation-confirming halfway belter he walloped over against Leicester in the first match of their trophy-defending group, back in October 2006. He’s been pulling off last act heroics for quite a while, alright … but the distances are being reined in. You look at O’Gara’s placekicks and clearances now, and they just don’t corral a huge amount of volume. There are no big booming clearances anymore, and you don’t get much height and distance for your buck.
The ‘kick and clap’ brigade are prepared to applaud any time O’Gara puts the ball out of play, but half-reasonable rugby fans recognise that it meant handing over a throw-in to a 6’10″ middle jumper [Devin Toner], a world-class front jumper [Brad Thorn] and two 6’4″ back rowers in Heaslip and McLaughlin … that’s your plan? With no O’Connell or Ryan to threaten the opposition lineout? Hmmm. You’ve got to question the logic behind those calls and those kicks. Damien Varley’s throwing was iffy at best – Munster turned over three lineouts in the first twenty-four minutes – so even if Munster got the throw it was never going to be plain sailing.
Leinster targeted Munster danger-man Simon Zebo all night, with a kicking game that looked to find him out of position, put him under pressure in the contest to regather or encourage him to counter-attack on his own and get isolated in the tackle. It says something for the confidence that Leinster have in their defense that they’d be willing to kick to such a cracking runner who’s in good form, but that belief was warranted: Zebo was involved throughout, but failed to threaten or break off any trademark big runs.
Openside Battle Royale
One of the most obvious discrepancies in the contest was that between the two opensides, Shane Jennings and Peter O’Mahony. O’Mahony has been loudly touted as the answer to Ireland’s openside problem [a problem that pales in comparison with the serious lack of depth at tighthead, incidentally], yet the St Mary’s man had lessons to teach him on the night about getting on the ball, running lines to the breakdown in defense, making turnovers and covering tackles, as well as harassing the opposition outhalf – if the Cork Con tyro was in the mood to learn.
O’Mahony was a No8 for the majority of his underage career, and has been a blindside since he broke into the Munster team. It’s only natural that a player who has been playing openside professionally for the best part of a decade is a good few steps further up the ladder.
That’s not to say that Jennings should be recalled to the Irish team for the tour to New Zealand, or that it’s not worth O’Mahony’s time persisting at openside: unfortunately for Jenno, he’s never made a truly compelling case for himself at international level, and he’ll turn 31 over the summer. Ireland are a team that should be looking to get younger, rather than older. However, O’Mahony has a way to go in learning the position, and he came off decidedly second-best on the night.
Munster went into he game with a number of very significant injury issues, with captain Paul O’Connell, second-row Donnacha Ryan and scrum-half Conor Murray all missing. O’Connell and Ryan being out injured meant that 85-times capped Donncha O’Callaghan [193 Munster caps], and 23-times capped Mick O’Driscoll [198 Munster caps] were reinstalled in the engine room.
It’s obvious that Munster are stocked deep in terms of second rows: O’Connell, Ryan and O’Callaghan are all current internationals, and Mick O’Driscoll was capped as recently as the RWC11 warm-up game against Scotland. However, Dave Foley [dislocated shoulder] and Ian Nagle [ankle] have neither had much gametime nor much luck this season, and both were again unavailable for selection, leaving Munster somewhat short in the middle of the pack.
This manifested itself in their lack of ball-carriers and tackle-breakers up front. Ryan in particular has had an excellent season when it comes to hitting the ball at pace and making it past the gainline, and O’Connell has improved this part of his game dramatically. O’Mahony’s switch to openside has impinged on his role as a strike runner, and while the 22-year old Dave O’Callaghan made a promising start, he’s still growing into his strength and doesn’t yet look like a dominating player at the collisions. He played the vast majority of his underage rugby as a second-row, so while he has prototypical blindside height at 195cm [6’5”], it’s difficult to know whether he’s got the top-end speed and explosiveness to be a punishing ball-carrier at this level … he’s getting a good run at the moment, and as he adjusts to the pace of the game, hopefully he’ll find his feet and bring that aspect of his game up a few notches.
With those second-row injuries depriving them of valuable depth in the substitutes panel, Munster were particularly vulnerable to a last-quarter blitz from the visitors, and Leinster coach Joe Schmidt duly emptied his bench and delivered. Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy and Fergus McFadden all started for Ireland in the Six Nations, while Leo Cullen and Isaac Boss played in the recent World Cup. Munster, with their long list of injuries [including David Wallace, Denis Leamy and Doug Howlett] simply couldn’t compete. Healy and O’Brien took on a hell of a lot of ball and required no small amount of stopping, and while Richardt Strauss isn’t the same ball-carrying threat as those two, he is unrelentingly combative and simply does so many things well. The men in red defended their line well, but the last twenty minutes of the game were all Leinster.
Wins in Thomond Park are hard to come by, and while it seemed from the team-sheet that Leinster had the stronger match-day squad, that big vocal crowd can make it hard for visiting teams. The away team typically don’t get many of the 50/50 calls from referee, and while Leinster have won there in the recent past [back in the 2009-10 season], it’s still a big victory – remember how a strong first half performance was turned over last season in the equivalent fixture? While the failure to score a try is always cause for concern, keeping the losing bonus point away from Munster will go someway to making up for it.
Munster failed to create a genuine try-scoring chance over eighty minutes, a worrying failure at home. They lacked any penetration, either through the forwards or through their three-quarters, with Jennings doing an exceptional [and unexpected] man-marking job on Keith Earls in open play. Zebo was shut down, Felix Jones couldn’t get into the game and Johne Murphy was absolutely anonymous; this performance will likely have sealed in McGahan’s mind that they need Denis Hurley in the No14 jersey for the quarter-final.
Their lineout malfunctioned until Mike Sherry replaced Damien Varley at hooker, and the scrum was a mess, despite having an experienced front five in situ. O’Connell’s return should bring far more structure and accuracy back to the lineout, but there has to be serious questions over Varley’s place, purely on the basis of his throwing. The Mole would imagine that Donnacha Ryan will come back into the team as a No6 for the quarter-final against Ulster, with Micko and Dave O’Callaghan dropping to the bench.
Some Munster fans will take comfort from the anecdotal evidence that they have often played poorly before important Heineken Cup games, but there are serious issues to be ironed out if they want to come away winners next weekend.