Munster’s preparations for their key back-to-back matches with the Llanelli Scarlets in the Heineken Cup were staggered by an unexpected loss to the Ospreys.
The thing about the record books is that they don’t draw a picture – they just record the score. In that light, a bonus-point loss to the second-placed team in the league away from home isn’t a bad result. In any other light, it was a terrible result.
The Ospreys have changed an awful lot in the last year. Back in 2008 Warren Gatland picked 13 Ospreys players in a Welsh starting XV in the Six Nations against England for his first game in charge. In those days, the Ospreys bestrode Welsh rugby like some band of bemulleted, spray-tanned galacticos, with Mike Phillips, Gavin Henson, James Hook and Lee Byrne the standard bearers for a region renowned for big spending and failing to close out European games.
Nowadays the balance of contributing clubs to the Welsh national team is far more equable, so the Ospreylians weren’t as hamstrung by international call-ups for Wales’ pointless game against Australia as they would have been in the past.
Still, the Ospreys were deprived the services of Shane Williams, Dan Biggar, Ryan Jones, Justin Tipuric, Ryan Bevington and Huw Bennett because of national service, whilst fellow Welsh internationals Alun Wyn Jones, Adam Jones, Paul James and Tom “I Was George North Before George North” Prydie were unavailable through injury, as was outstanding Samoan scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i.
While this wasn’t quite a bare-bones Ospreys side – their three-quarter line was largely intact, with Tommy Bowe, Richard Fussell, Ashley Beck and Andrew Bishop all lining out – it was still one which was down a significant number of players.
In contrast, the Munster match-day squad [outside of the existing long-term casualties of David Wallace, Jerry Flannery, Felix Jones and Keith Earls] was close to full strength, with 21 of the 23 players who featured against Castres two weeks ago present and – to a degree – correct. While Lifeimi Mafi and John Hayes were absent, that surely doesn’t explain the enormous drop-off in performance.
Nor can that sharp deterioration be blamed on the p*ss-poor refereeing of Scot Peter Allan, although he had a significant impact on the end result. For almost 7 minutes – from the 68th to the 75th – Munster were camped 5m from the Ospreys line, taking penalty after penalty out of a tiring Ospreys scrum; despite much prompting from the Munster pack, he failed to give a penalty try, and then took the easy option of giving the home side a relieving penalty when BJ Botha’s feet went from under him.
You can take the opinion that Munster should have gone for the sticks when they didn’t get over after a couple of attempts, but in general you have a better chance of the penalty try after a gaudy number of collapsed scrums. That it didn’t pan out for them was ridiculous, but they didn’t really deserve the win. Their efforts in attack were generally both clueless and toothless, with the stark exception of when Dougie Howlett got his hands on the ball. The uber-classy former All Black looked easily the most dangerous player in red, but Munster couldn’t figure out a way to bring him into the game in the face of some very impressive Ospreys’ defensive line speed.
That they couldn’t figure it out for 80 minutes was the key to the game, and also a very strong pointer to the inadequacies of Munster back play. With O’Gara on the bench, Stringer on the outs and Howlett stranded on the wing, there’s neither a great deal of experience nor rugby smarts in the Munster backline. Tomás O’Leary is a poor reader of the game and not much of a decision-maker, and Ian Keatley just couldn’t adapt his gameplan to a defense that was up in his face from the opening whistle.
Unfortunately for both player and team, Howlett didn’t last the match. The Mole isn’t quite sure about either the nature or extent of his injury, but he was helped from the field near the end of the game after crumbling in a heap behind the play. Having racked up 18 tries in his last 38 games for the province, Howlett will be sorely, sorely missed.
While their back play lacked accurate recognition and remedy, their discipline – another traditional Munster weakness – was a huge contributing factor to the loss. Peter O’Mahony is many things, but he’s got a hell of a long way to go as a captain. Professional refs don’t get bullied by 22-year old captains, and O’Mahony’s failure – and indeed, his unwillingness – to impose any sense of discipline on a team leaking penalties showed both his own immaturity and the inadequacies of his captaincy.
The most memorable vignette of the night was the sight of Paul O’Connell pushing him away from referee Allan after Munster had been awarded a penalty near the Ospreys 22; the body language spoke of an older pro and a better captain telling him to take the penalty and stop carping at the ref.
On the night when Marcus Horan made his 200th appearance for Munster, he had a game which he would rather forget. The Horan of old was a divil for hanging out on the wing, but the 34-year old that took the pitch tonight had neither the energy to contribute much to the loose, nor the scrummaging strength to take a hold of the set piece. More pointedly, despite all his experience, he didn’t have the leadership to gather together what was a strong pack for this level and take the game into their hands and away from their unsuccessful back line.
Horan, Leamy and O’Callaghan each have more than 50 Irish caps and have played more than 500 combined games for Munster, while Varley, Ryan and Ronan have all been capped for Ireland within the last 12 months; that doesn’t take into account the Springbok experience of BJ Botha. O’Mahony’s captaincy should have been propped up by this coterie of veterans, but instead his lack of respect for the referee was tacitly backed up by players who should know a hell of a lot better at this stage of their careers.