Munster will not kick on unless they buy some top-class talent
Reds’ flaws exposed by Sarries but Blues are on the rise despite missed opportunity in Lyon
THE recent restructuring of European competition, driven by the ever-increasing financial clout of the English and French clubs, had triggered a fear that the glory days of our provinces in Europe were being consigned to history and, while the changes, coincidental as they were with a relatively fallow period for our provinces, have so far turned out to be not as cataclysmic as feared, the return of Leinster and Munster to the last four in Europe was nonetheless most welcome.
An all-Ireland final in Edinburgh was always the least likely outcome of last weekend and despite a probable Guinness PRO12 final meeting of the pair in Dublin in May, the real questions now are of where they go from here, and the respective prospects of the two provinces to kick on and contend again next season and beyond.
Ahead of the semi-finals, the accepted wisdom was that while both were outsiders in their games, Leinster were in with a better chance of making the final, with Saracens’ sheer strength and quality always likely to outweigh any benefits accruing from Munster’s home advantage.
While Peter O’Mahony’s men started well, rocking Saracens into some early errors and imposing themselves at the scrum, their failure to capitalise materially on that initial assault became a template for the remainder of the game. Saracens’ control of the gainline and Munster’s impotence in attack combined to construct an effective midfield ‘nogo’ area, leaving the boots of half-backs Duncan Williams and Tyler Bleyendaal the only real weapons in the Munster armoury.
Sadly, both were somewhat shy of their best and of the standard required at this level.
Munster’s lack of cutting edge and, at times, offensive ambition — typified by scrum-half Williams slowing the game unnecessarily by hoisting boxkicks high into the sky as the first-half clock was running down, despite his side’s numerical advantage arising from Jackson Wray’s sin-binning — made it easy for the physically dominant Saracens defence.
Conor Murray was sorely missed, as he would be by any team, but the direction provided by out-half Bleyendaal and the midfield gain-line busting of Jaco Taute, both so productive in earlier rounds, were conspicuous by their absence also, just when most needed. While Francis Saili looked threatening when he replaced Taute in the second half, it’s quite clear that reinforcements are required if the progress achieved this season is to be developed further, as it must be.
That development will have to be based on a cohort of quality Irish players smattered with a few imports. Recent signings James Hart, JJ Hanrahan and Chris Farrell are all positive and encouraging, and their fortunes in the red jersey — and those of the latter pair in particular — will be crucial to Rassie Erasmus’s future plans.
Leinster, on the other hand, are a somewhat different story. Confronted by opposition of an inferior quality to that encountered by Munster, there was nonetheless more than enough in their performance to suggest that they’re well advanced on their trek back to an established place in Europe’s upper echelons.
While it’s important not to allow the unexpected nature of their run in this season’s competition to detract from the disappointment of letting such a huge opportunity slip through their fingers, the signs were very encouraging, notwithstanding the gifting of an ultimately unassailable early lead during an opening quarter remarkable for Leinster’s expensive inaccuracies.
Munster’s lack of cutting edge and offensive ambition made it easy for the Sarries defence
The quality of the younger players introduced into the senior squad on a sustained basis through the season is the envy of European rugby, and the management of that process may well turn out to be Leo Cullen biggest achievement this season, regardless of what’s yet to transpire in the PRO12. Despite occasionally questionable decision-making last Sunday, their offensive game has developed massively with the introduction of Robbie Henshaw, the continued emergence of Garry Ringrose and the arrival of Joey Carbery as an alternative play-making out-half or full-back.
In the absence up front of Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip through injury, Rhys Ruddock, Dan Leavy and Jack Conan all stepped up superbly. Whatever questions there may be around the balance of the trio as a starting unit, all three made their presence felt with fine individual performances, emphasising further the depth of backrow talent available.
However, if the recruitment of the Maori All Blacks wing/full-back James Lowe from the Chiefs indicates that the backline will continue to be a match for anyone next season, the fact remains that, since the departure of Nathan Hines in 2011, the second-row has remained a problem area.
Temporarily solved by Brad Thorn in 2012, the problem role of secondrow ‘dog’ remains and while Wallaby Scott Fardy has been signed from the Brumbies for next season, only time will tell whether he can truly fulfil the role, given that he’s played his best rugby in the back-row.
Admittedly, it’s a relatively minor complaint but on such fine margins are top-level matches and tournaments won — a fact of which Cullen, one of the most intelligent individuals I had the pleasure of being associated with during my coaching /management days, would be acutely aware.
Results last weekend may not have been to our liking but both provinces have enjoyed excellent seasons to date, much better than expected, and with plenty still to play for too. They currently stand in contrasting stages of development, with Leinster seemingly better positioned to push on to bigger and better things in the seasons immediately ahead.
Does that mean that a PRO12 final meeting in the Aviva between the pair would be a foregone conclusion? Anything but, I’d suggest; the money might be on Leinster, but isn’t that just how Munster like it ?
PS: Am I alone in noticing the collective amnesia of my colleagues in the Irish rugby commentariat around the remarkable achievements over the last eight seasons at Saracens of ex-Queen’s, Bangor, London Irish, Ulster and Ireland centre Mark McCall in developing and maintaining the current pre-eminent force in European non-Test rugby? What’s that old saying about a prophet in his own land?