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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - JIM GLEN­NON

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?

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