This time of year always fills me with dread when watching the Guinness Pro 12. The end of January which means that the 6N tournament is looming large on the horizon, a time of year where rugby teams have to plunge deep into their squad depth charts to find the right combinations to win league fixtures which could be pivotal come the end of the season. It should be a time when the Pro 12 fixtures should be open affairs where prospective starters are staking a claim for the jersey, playing heads up rugby and showing ambition and desire to create scoring opportunities. However, no-one read the brief in a foggy, drab Parma today.
Anxious Opening Period
Munster and Zebre’s team selections were minus several marquee players but there are still experience a plenty in both camps to suggest that this game would be an interesting affair despite the foggy conditions.
Munster opened the scoring after five minutes when second row Mark Chisholm touched down after a dominant maul. There were suspicions of a knock on in the lead up to the try but match official Dudley Philips awarded te try. Ian Keatley duly added the extras and Munster were seven points up.
The early score awoke the hosts and Zebre’s pack drove repeatedly into Munster territory which yielded three penalties in quick succession. Munster were punished by Philips for not rolling away in the tackle which led to an early team warning. Kelly Haimona duly converted each penalty opportunity presented and after a slow start, the hosts were now in the lead 9-7.
An enterprising first twenty-five minutes then descended into mediocrity as both sides were guilty of poor penalty concessions. Munster immediately took the lead as Zebre were pinged at the breakdown. Keatley’s penalty kick was solid to retake the lead for the team in red. Munster returned the favor, giving away another penalty for offside with Haimona was never going to miss.
Zebre’s hard work in the opening period was then scuppered as their hooker Oliviero Fabiani was pinged for a no arms tackle during a Munster maul. It was a silly penalty award as Munster had shown precious little with ball in hand during the first period. The penalty yet again was converted by Ian Keatley to leave the score as 12-10.
Forgettable Second Half
The second half witnessed was one of the most drab forty minutes seen in the league for a number of seasons. Zebre saw out the remaining minutes of their sin bin with ease and then where presented with their own player advantage as Dave O’Callaghan was sent to the sin bin for a high tackle on Haimona which after several other penalties was destined to force Dudley Philips into action.
This ten minutes really highlighted the plight of the league during this period of season. A player advantage should have seen the hosts pepper Munster out wide but the lack of precision and continuity from the Italians was truly awful. No threat outside ten and Zebre were forced to launch aerial bombs to test O’Mahoney and Sweetnam but the wings were able to defend the situations. No score conceded by Munster during the ten minute spell without their full complement but it owed everything to lack of creativity of the hosts.
With the score 13-12 to Munster entering into the final ten minutes, the visitors attempted to close the game out with repeated drives deep into Zebre territory but as their hosts were undone by unforced errors, static running lines for the first receiver. With all attacking avenues exhausted, Munster asked Ian Keatley to close the game out. It started well for the fly-half with a smart drop-goal but his penalty kicking confidence was yet again exposed with two misses during the last ten minutes. The first penalty from around forty meters was short of the posts and then when Munster created another penalty opportunity thirty-five meters out hit the penalty well wide.
Lucky for Munster, Zebre were now out of gas and the last phrase of play summed up the contest perfectly. Munster going through the phrases and then just inside the twenty-two, Ian Keatley decided to kick the ball into touch with no hesitation. The lack of adventure and confidence to take the ball spoke volumes; get out of the game with the win and move on.
Video Analysis Horror Show
Both sides will be horrified by the video analysis on Monday. The lack of game management from either side was damning. Haimona and Keatley have played in 6N level but the lack of direction from both in attacking plays was wholly exposed. Offloading was a dying art form in this contest, any attempt to perform the skill usually led to a knock on. The scrum and break-down was a mess throughout; blame here to the match official who was lenient to Zebre whose front row repeatedly lost their bind.
The break-down was a horror show; sealing off, players in offside positions from both sides; the two yellow cards was kind to both sides truth be told. Munster win but plenty of work in the training ground to create the continuity and understanding required in the weeks to come. Zebre were hard working but extremely limited from an attacking sense. A poor advert for the league.