Guinness Pro 12: Zebre 12 – 16 Munster

pro12_logo

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.

What a difference twenty-four hours makes?

keith_earls

Introduction

The obituaries were written, the farewell tributes were being inked and then this afternoon came the news that Keith Earls had agreed to a three year IRFU contract and with it staying with Munster. The news coupled with the contract extension to pivotal scrum-half Conor Murray is fantastic news for the province. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the last twenty-four hours.

Media Speculation off the mark (again)

If there is a lesson yet again to be learned from this story, it is that until a player signs on the dotted line, speculation linking a player to a particular club is pure and utter speculation. It is not the first time that the Irish Independent has being caught rotten in speculating on the future of Munster players. Cast our mind back a couple of weeks ago and the publication printed that James Cronin was scheduled to sign for London Irish only for the Cork native to sign a contract extension with the province only twenty-four hours after the story hit the press.

The same pattern emerged in the Keith Earls story; close sources were enough to print that Earls was destined for Saracens but as in Cronin’s case, a contract renewal was signed with Munster. The Irish Independent may need to look long and hard over the sources after these incidences. The reporting was very very superficial; cited in Earl’s situation that it was family and not financial gain for the purported move to England. Can you please be more specific? The statement alone left questions a plenty on the player and his family situation which to be frank was quite disappointing. The Irish Independent editor needs to have a word with their sporting correspondents in the light of this inaccurate story. Their credibility for breaking rugby stories is now akin to a contributor on a rugby message board such is its credence at this juncture. Time to reflect and report on the cold hard facts gentlemen.

Player Viewpoint

Keith Earls was left in an uncompromising position yesterday morning with the media reports virtually stating that he was upping sticks to Saracens. A response was required immediately by both the player and Munster Rugby to stake on record the situation and so it proved today with the three year contract extension which runs until after the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Munster and Keith Earls resolved the innuendo immediately, decisive action from both parties.

The contract extension for Conor Murray was along expected lines; the players repeatedly went on record stating that he wanted to stay with the province. There were probably suitors for the talented scrum-half but Murray’s desire to wear the red jersey of Munster and continue his career with the national team (question marks over overseas players eligibility) won the day.

The good news over Keith Earls and Conor Murray is tempered by the fact that there is still no contract update on Simon Zebo. Will we see more speculation by the broadsheets on the back of the player’s uncertain future? It does not look good when both parties remain moot on the topic. We are heading into February next week and recruitment planning for next season should be complete. Munster have at least seven players still in contract limbo including Zebo and to be honest for all parties’ stake, swift resolution is required whether the player resign or leave for pastures new.

Munster Rugby – The Future?

Where Munster Rugby go in terms of identifying squad replacements in the front row, potential competition at the out-half position is some way off considering the current squad player contract situation? Transition will be the keyword yet again next season and there are question marks whether Axel Foley will be at the helm at that stage. Munster Rugby may feel satisfied today but more problems will need to be solved in the weeks to come; interesting times lie ahead for the province and how they aim to improve in all facets of the organization.

Munster – Keith Earls Exit?

keith_earls

Introduction

The news that Keith Earls is primed to sign a three year contract with English juggernaut Saracens has caused much surprise within Munster fan circles today. Is this another James Cronin story where the Cork man was apparently (if newspapers were to be believed) to sign with London Irish only to resign with the province twenty-four hours after the story was published. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the latest rumor and speculation and wonders if this purported move goes through, will there be more high profile players leaving Munster for pastures new?

The Report

Irish Independent’s story on Keith Earls has to be greeted on its merits, it is purely speculation at this juncture. As with any contract negotiations, counter-parties have provided the player and representatives with firm offers. It is now time for the player, his family and representatives to weigh the options and make a decision which will probably be announced in the next few weeks.

Why the interest?

Earls has many admirers across the Irish Sea for many seasons. The Moyross native has had his fair share of injuries but when fit, the Irish international has impressed in the three quarters and wing (where is his best position). His ability to score a try out of nothing evident in his solo cameo against Stade Francais at Thomond Park in this season’s European Champions Cup competition. His faint to pass and exploit a defensive weakness was there for all to see and his pace was enough to cross for a sensational try. This is what Keith Earls gives a team; a try scoring outlet. His flexibility to play multiple back line positions for club and country is a distinct bonus. The Lions tour capped player is known for his professionalism both on and off the pitch and if he were to leave Munster, it would be yet another massive blow for a province who need experience in a time of instability and transition.

Irish Player Exodus

If Keith Earls does decide to accept the offer provided by Saracens, it is another IRFU contracted player who has decided to ply their profession away from their native land for at least the next three seasons. With the vast money circulating in the English and French club scene, it would be remiss of Irish players not to look on with some level of envy. Ian Madigan and Marty Moore have made the decision to play their rugby away from Leinster next season and this strikes a fascinating backdrop for the IRFU and Joe Schmidt in providing clarity on whether Irish players based with foreign clubs are no longer in national team contention. With such a small player pool compared to the likes of England and France, can Ireland ill afford to exclude anyone with form and potential? The Rugby World Cup emphasized this fact in spades when injuries to key personnel arrived at the quarter-final stage and exposed squad depth issues.

Keith Earls’ move would be a shock for the IRFU and Munster alike if the rumors are true as it could accelerate the decision of the likes of Simon Zebo and Conor Murray to look at alternative options. Munster are in serious danger of losing massive experience in their locker room come the end of the season. It only requires an experienced player such as Earls to move on for other players to start to seriously consider a move away from the province. It is a cyclical trend; players will embrace the new culture, new surroundings of a net new club but ultimately with a World Cup four years out, I would expect Irish players to return to their native land and play once again for their provinces. It is a magnificent opportunity for these players. Their careers are short enough considering the concussions and injuries in the sport now. Best of luck to them.

IRFU Stance

IRFU may look at this as an opportunity to blood up and coming talent in the positions vacated by the players who have moved abroad. The IRFU cannot compete with the likes of Toulon, Stade, Racing Metro, Wasps, Saracens so the next step is to identify and nurture young home grown players. While welcome, the provinces will be in transitional mode for a couple of years. There needs to be a balancing act from the IRFU to strategically deploy IRFU contracted players to the four provinces and increase standards across the four provinces to help the emerging young players improve performance levels week in week out. Otherwise, a WRU scenario ten years ago will emerge with all the best talent leaving leaving the representational teams with fledging kids with big potential but little in the way of experienced players to help them develop in the game. It is a fine balancing act for the IRFU and one that Joe Schmidt surely has identified as a potential massive issue.

Munster Exodus?

It is fair to say that rumors will circulate particularly on the futures of Conor Murray and Simon Zebo on the back of these newspaper reports on Keith Earls. Murray has expressed his desire to remain at the province; surely a deal needs to be concluded soon. Zebo on the other hand may be a different story as he is not under a central IRFU contract. Zebo has plenty of suitors in Toulouse and Pau where several Munster players are plying their trade with ex-coach Simon Mannix. I suspect Zebo will depart for pastures new but Murray will stay on and become the figure head for the province for the next World Cup cycle. Munster need to act decisively and secure their contract targets. There are at least nine players still out of contract come the end of the season. I think it is in the best interests of all involved and supporters to make clear who they intend to pursue and who they relinquish to allow these players time to find new rugby clubs. Munster administration are again faced with a stiff test of their strategical nous; a team which has faltered badly this season could be obliterated come May if contract negotiations battles are not won. Would Axel Foley have the fight and resolve to remain in the head coaching post? A province waits on with interest.

European Champions Cup Review – Round 6

erc_logo

The European Rugby Champions Cup pool phrase for 2015-16 is now in the books, a pool phrase where English and French clubs secure all the quarter final berths, a pool phrase where the Pro 12 frankly were wholly exposed in squad depth and talent. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the last pool game round action and wonders if Clermont Auvergne have now lost their opportunity to ever win the ultimate European Rugby top prize.

Au Revoir Clermont

The biggest shock in the newly revamped tournament was the elimination of Clermont Auvergne, a rugby club who look destined never to win the top European Rugby prize. Clermont have all the attributes required to win this competition; a town whose pride for their club holds no bounds, a club whose squad is an embarrassment of riches, a stadium whose home record rivals that of any team in European Cup rugby. Bordeaux Begles came into this game by most observers as cannon fodder. The French away team attitude was presumed and it appeared a routine bonus point win for Clermont and another last eight appearance. However, Bordeaux Begles did not read the script with a performance full of endeavor and determination which exposed the mental scars of the past inflicted on Clermont who will not want to look at the last fifteen minutes of this contest.

Clermont were in total control heading into the final quarter, the bonus point was secured with pack dominance allowing Parra to launch Jonathan Davies in the three quarters early doors. Bordeaux Begles frankly could have given up the ghost but where it was just sheer abandonment, decided to offload the ball at every given opportunity in that final quarter which was taking its toll on the home side fitness levels and home supporters nerves. When Julien Bardy decided to let his Bordeaux opponent crash to the floor after a tip tackle, JP Doyle had no choice but to issue the yellow card. Bordeaux Begles saw their opportunity as Riva and Saaili crossed for tries where offloading and incisive passing was too much for the fourteen men Clermont.

Pool 2 will be remembered for an extraordinary gaffe from experienced scrum-half Morgan Parra with three minutes to go . With Clermont given a penalty straight in front of Begles post, Parra decided to tap and go. The ensuing passage of play was held up by the visitors and the game was over. A penalty kick success for the hosts and they would have being advanced to the last eight by the skin of their teeth. Perhaps, it summed up Clermont’s issues in this competition. A lack of assurance and game management has being their achilles heel and today’s decision by Parra will go down in history as one of the most costly mistakes in this tournament’s history. Clermont are out and one wonders if this latest reversal will be a fatal blow to the club ever getting to a position to win out this competition. Money aplenty has being pumped into Clermont over the last fifteen years and the end product has being one French Championship. Refund anyone?

Pro 12 Anguish

Let us be quite frank. This could be the reality check required for the organizers of the Pro 12 tournament. All representative teams apart from Ulster were quite frankly not at the races as the league’s interest in this year’s competition was extinguished as soon as Stade ran in their forth try against Leicester Tigers in Paris early this afternoon.

Ulster can consider themselves unlucky not to advance; their performances in their pool were good but failure to secure a losing bonus point to Saracens home or away proved fatal. Their 61-3 triumph over Oyonaax was a superb effort and points to a promising end of season for Les Kiss’ side.

The other Irish provinces were already out of the competition before the last two pool games. Munster redeemed themselves to a small extent with two bonus point wins over Stade and Treviso but their squad limitations, lack of game plan and game management execution were exposed against Leicester and Stade early doors. Small morale victories but massive rebuild work is required in the province in all levels to get to compete for even a last eight berth in this competition going forward.

Leinster looked to have turned a corner and then were walloped by a rampant Wasps outfit yesterday at the Ricoh Arena. 51-10 scoreline cannot be glossed over. Leinster were incredibly poor particularly in that second half where their defensive line simply crumbled. Eliot Daly had an emphatic afternoon with ball in hand, consistently picking gaps in Leinster three quarter defense. The lack of fight and hunger from Leinster to get back into the game was the more worrying aspect to this performance; akin to Munster’s horrid reversal away to Stade. No leadership in the Leinster team and Leo Cullen is suddenly under pressure yet again with Conor O’Shea free to join any rugby club at the end of the current season. Leo Cullen has integrated promising youth players such as Ringrose, Van den Flier and Furlong but it is the senior players who are not playing up to par. Sexton’s return to the province has being disappointing, another head injury and questions on 6N availability loom large. Sexton’s departure signaled Jimmy Gopperth’s emergence in the contest; superb performance to stick it to a few Leinster fans who ridiculed the Kiwi last season (scapegoat no more).

The Scottish challenge lay with Glasgow Warriors, a season which promised much in European competition faded into disappointment last weekend at Franklin Gardens with the late heartbreaking try from Mallinder. Their win against Racing at home this weekend show that the side have the ability to mix it with anyone on their day; it is now consistency for the Warriors to perform in Europe week in, week out. Their objective is to climb up the table pronto in order to get a favorable draw next season in Europe.

Ospreys will look back on today as a missed opportunity. A trip to Exeter Chiefs and the Welsh regional side knew that a win was the minimum requirement. However, Ospreys failed to perform the level required and Exeter exposed Ospreys repeatedly out wide with a performance full of invention and passing ability. Exeter Chiefs are the surprise team of the tournament. Sandy Park is a fortress and their vocal home support roared their side to pool winners. Exeter’s decision making and ability to play what was in front of them was excellent; in stark contrast Ospreys went into their shell hoping that their pack would save the day which was never going to be enough. Exeter win the pool on points difference and will play with a freedom and abandonment which will pose a danger to Wasps in the last eight.

Scarlets, top of the Pro 12 league but were exposed in all facets of play in this season’s competition. The saving grace for Llanelli is that the 6N looms large, opposing teams will be depleted and that means more opportunities to win points. Llanelli’s lack of physicality upfront was their weak point, no foundation in which to involve their exciting back line. A sobering day for all involved with the Pro 12 but emphasizes the gap between the league and England / French leagues. Yes, the money is a big difference but the skill set in the Pro 12 is inferior. When you add match officiating which could be best described as inconsistent, Pro 12 team bad habits are being punished by English / French officiating crews. Time to reflect for the Pro 12.

European Cup – Favorites?

Saracens for me look like the team who could go all the way. Their performance against Toulouse this weekend highlighted their traditional pack work rate and physicality but also emphasized their back line play with two well taken tries and squandered another two tries at least. Owen Farrell’s gaffe was comedy gold. With Northampton Saints next, Saracens will be confident of victory at the Allianz and with lessons learned from last season fresh in their memory, Saracens have all that is required to win the top prize. There is no weak link in this outfit. The pack is as solid an unit left in this tournament. Jamie George’s lineout execution has being on point throughout the pool phrase and when you add the stifling back row play of Krus, Burger, Vunipola; you see how Saracens can create the basic foundations to allow their half-backs and back line to flourish. Wigglesworth, Farrell / Hodgson tandem has being an efficient unit and with the ever reliable Wylde, Goode and new talent Duncan Taylor providing spark and creativity, there is now an added dimension to their back play. I will tip them to win this competition provided that Toulon are dumped out of the competition by Racing Metro but I have my doubts on that prospect.

Connacht

A ray of hope flickered for Irish rugby around Lough Atalia, Galway on Saturday afternoon as Connacht clinched their pool in the European Challenge Cup. Do or die encounter was how it was billed in the Galway media and the team led by the impressive Marmion. Henshaw had the bonus point secured over a gutsy Ensei outfit within thirty minutes. All eyes and ears had turned to the outcome of Newcastle and Brive long before the final whistle. Great for Pat Lam’s charges to be involved in European competition come April. Grenoble will be a massive test but one that Connacht should relish. The only Irish team left in European competition, might be an idea to book a trip to lovely Grenoble to support the Connacht team whose brand of free flowing, offloading style of rugby has earned plaudits and now qualification from a pool which on paper was difficult.

EPL Reflections – January 18th

epl_logo

Injury time or no injury time that is the question?

In one of the best second half games of the season, Chelsea and Everton’s classic encounter will be remembered for the amount of injury time played. Eight minutes of injury time which was supposed to be only seven minutes allowed the hosts to score an equalizer courtesy of John Terry’s close range flick (don’t mention the offside call missed). It is high time that the EPL take the responsibility of injury time allocation away from the match officials on duty. With technology in operation, surely the league can use it to stop and start the game clock to allow everyone be in no doubt on the time left in a match. The injury time debacle destroyed an epic contest and hopefully is a defining point in this debate going forward. Chelsea under Guus Hiddink are revitalized, their fight and hunger to get back into the contest was impressive. Everton’s season was summarized in that second half; plenty of promise and endeavor but were punished for lapses late on.

Rooney settles North-West El Classico

In what can only be described as a drab affair, Manchester United with their only shot on target took the fair of the spoils against a Liverpool team who huffed and puffed but could not provide the creativity or guile to unlock United who were exposed down the right flank throughout as Darmian was forced to position himself in a narrow position. The intriguing aspect of this contest was that Liverpool’s sheer inability to resolve their defensive woes from set-pieces. Juan Mata produced the only noteworthy cross during this contest which saw Fellaini’s header come off the crossbar before Rooney volleyed into the net from the rebound. Both teams lacked basic passing ability, the amount of misplaced passes was deplorable and one suggests that both sides will look to plunge into the transfer market in earnest come the summer. The pressure is suddenly off Van Gaal as United continue their unbeaten run but the style of football is still tough to watch. Two points off forth will be Van Gaal’s retort but there needs to be more about the side than just Martial’s ability and pace upfront. Liverpool are in transition but could Stephen Caulker envisioned himself as a striker (makeshift) for the last two games under Klopp’s managerial nous? Plenty of work required in Melrose and Carrington on the back of this performance.

Arsenal pass the Britannia test

Stoke City are the barometer to test EPL league credentials. Mark Hughes’ team have dispatched the Manchester clubs and Chelsea with ease in recent weeks and Arsenal will be happy to leave the Britannia Stadium with a share of the spoils. The Ramsey / Shawcross injury saga from six seasons ago reared its head again with the home support heckling the Welsh player with every touch. The game will be remembered for the performances of Butland and Cech in goal who produced moments of brilliance in the second half to keep the scores at blank. Arsenal will be happy with the point but need to produce a massive statement of intent against Chelsea next weekend if they are to be considered the front runner for this league title as Manchester City are nestled quite ominously behind Arsene Wenger’s side.

Manchester City demolish Palace

It is a worrying time for Palace manager Alan Pardew as a distinct lack of firepower upfront and defensive chaos capped a miserable visit to the Etihad as City hit Palace for four. In truth, the scoreline could have being much more as City killed the game off before the interval. City were in the mood from the start as De Bruyne and Delph caught the eye. With Aguero looking close to full fitness (brace again), City dismissed Palace with the contempt that suggests Manuel Pellegrini’s team are keen to retain their title. Palace are close to the forty point mark but Pardew realizes that reinforcements are required at both ends of the pitch. The striking options look weak while defensively, it has being a tough time this week with goalkeeping clangers and indecisive defensive performances. Palace will be fine but long term, Pardew needs to find at least four players to increase competition in the squad.

Relegation Battle

Aston Villa have had a good week. Four points from their two home games. The Leicester City draw was more down to their grit and determination but it was a good sign for Remi Garde with Rudy Gestede equalizing deservedly in the second half. Leicester will rue their inability to not be more than one goal up. Mahrez’s penalty miss in the first half was crucial. You hope that Leicester City will not fall away from the title race but Jamie Vardy has not scored in three outings, it is time for Leicester to find another goalscoring sources. Okazaki was lively at the weekend, scored a goal and will need to assist Vardy as the talisman continues to recover from a minor surgery procedure. Yes, Vardy is playing but it is clear that the striker is not fully fit.

Norwich City look like a team who are regressing at the wrong time of the season. Defensive vulnerable to pace and with no genuine consistent scoring threat upfront, Alex Neil has to plunge into the transfer market. Gary Naismith’s transfer will help attacking wise but Norwich are struggling to keep clean sheets. Bournemouth will rarely have an easier afternoon than they did last weekend with a 3-0 win. Afobe’s arrival is most welcome, good pace, has physicality and with confidence could score goals in the top flight.

Sunderland produce another rotten away performance. Their 4-1 loss to Tottenham summarized their position in the league; defensively unorganized throughout and allowed the hosts to regain the initiative after equalizing in the opening period. Big Sam has to enter the transfer market to improve defensively and goalkeeping. Jermain Defoe’s threat upfront will yield goals but Sunderland have to sort out their defensive woes fast, otherwise they are doomed. I suspect Big Sam will have money to spend this month but it could be shrewd loan signings which could improve the side more.

An excellent week for Newcastle United, their performances against Manchester United and West Ham United indicate that Steve McClaren’s team may have turned the corner. Their 2-1 win against the Hammers was impressive. Wijnaldum has being their main man this season and was instrumental in this win. Ayoze Perez as well has come into form at the right time and with Newcastle defensively look better, Newcastle will not be relegated. West Ham struggled and with no Andy Carroll to win aerial ball were contained throughout.

Swansea would need to win against Watford, otherwise a crisis will become a full blown epidemic. The managerial announcement does not inspire confidence and Huw Jenkins looks to have had no alternative to Gary Monk. Hoping that a new manager can give them the bounce required but they need to improve upfront. Any team from six could go down. Villa look doomed but such is the league this season, who knows what the picture could be in Easter?

 

European Rugby Cup Round 5 Roundup

erc_logo

The penultimate games of the European Rugby Champions Cup have concluded and we are starting to see the favorites come to the fore while some of Hawkeye Sidekick pre-competition fancies are consigned to the scrap heap. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the weekend action and wonders if this competition is now destined to become an Saxon / Franco dominated competition for the conceivable future.

Eighty minutes on the clock in the Stade Mayol and Toulon are looking down the barrel of a shock European Cup exit. Wasps who have grown with each pool game of this campaign were ahead and defending with intensity and organization, it required something special for Toulon to get out of jail and it duly came courtesy of Drew Mitchell who went in after concerted phrase play. Questions will ensue on a suspiciously looking knock on at the base of the ruck which laid the foundation for the hosts to launch the ball out wide but match official Nigel Owens never saw it and Toulon survive for another day. Wondering if this was the day that Toulon were let off the hook? They will be a dangerous animal come end of April when the quarter finals are set. With Bath now eliminated from the tournament, one would fancy the French club to secure the bonus point secured to top the pool and a potential home quarter final. Wasps were tenacious throughout, defensively solid and the pack led by the impressive Joe Launchbury took the game to the hosts creating penalty opportunities. It was a heartbreaking way to loss the game but Dai Young will be quick to identify the positives from this contest. Wasps are a team which has being transformed, a team who are capable of mixing it with the best. Wasps may not win this competition this term but the foundations are set for long term progression and dominance both domestically and in European action.

With Toulon wiping the cold sweat from their brow, the performance of the weekend came from Racing Metro who frankly outgunned a miserable Llanelli Scarlets challenge in Paris. This was as one sided a contest as the 64-14 scoreline will suggest as the hosts were dominant in all facets of play and with Dan Carter controlling the game with the minimum of fuss, the Welsh outfit were blow off the park. Scarlets were to an extent their own worse enemy with a couple of sin bins for wild, reckless high tackles but Racing Metro’s ability to  offload at will, the supporting running lines were creating massive holes in a Scarlets defense which to be fair has being solid in Pro 12 season action. Racing Metro are in the mood to stake a serious claim for European Cup honors and this demolition job will add to pundits claims that this team are the form team but as Clermont will testify, it is not how you start the competition, it is how you finish this competition at the business end of the season. Northampton extinguished Glasgow’s European hopes for another year, a late try from Mallinder (North’s aerial dominance was stellar) after a deft diagonal kick from Meyler decided the game at the death. Glasgow were made to pay for a late Swinson sin bin. Narrow margins in this contest and Glasgow came up short. Northampton have seriously work to do next weekend, a five point haul away to Scarlets and then hope for a favorable draw in the last eight. Their two try haul was impressive but their inability to stop leaking penalties looks like a fatal Achilles heel even at this stage of the competition.

Clermont, the perennial bridesmaid of this competiton were made to pay for lack of precision and continuity against an Ospreys who produced their best forty minute performance in a rain swept second half at the Liberty Stadium. How Wayne Barnes did not issue a red card to Clermont back row Viktor Kolelishvili is beyond me? A clear push on the referee and the match official did nothing. Incredible decision that on another day could have being crucial for Osprey’s chances of winning this contest but they used this controversy as motivation with the pack taking on the mantle to create penalty opportunities in that second half. Biggar’s kicking was unerring and Clermont could not find the tempo and quick ball required to unlock a resolute home defense. Ospreys must face a tricky tie away to Exeter who succumbed to a late sucker punch try from Bordeaux but the South-West England club would like nothing more than to add the scalp of Ospreys to their list of upsets this season in this competition. Clermont potentially will bag a five point haul next weekend which will create the pressure on Ospreys. Clermont may profit from Exeter upsetting the form book but Clermont’s lack of precision and ability to win the breakdown battle may come back to haunt the side later in this tournament. Justin Tipuric was lights out outstanding in this contest, compel anyone to tell me that a back row player has had a more dominant first quarter to a contest than  the Welsh man on Friday night. Immense performance of breakdown excellence and kill ball which allowed Osprey’s defense to set and organize which yielded the win.

The Irish provinces had a mixed weekend. Munster restored pride and honor to the jersey with a stirring performance against a Stade Francais outfit who struggled with the abrasive nature of Munster’s play throughout. With CJ Stander leading from the front with a performance full of work rate, aggression in ball carrying and tackling, the hosts grew into this contest and after an early Morne Steyn penalty scored their first try thanks to Mike Sharry, an impressive maul from the pack to drive the hooker over for the score. Munster were full value of their lead but needed to add to the scoreboard and the try from Keith Earls just before the interval was the perfect antidote. There appeared little danger when Earls took the ball just inside Stade’s half but the disguised run fooled the Stade cover and a massive gap opened which Earls duly exploited. The finish was emphatic and the crowd knew how crucial the score was with the celebration which ensued. Ian Keatley, the scapegoat for Munster woes during this miserable result sequence produced an assured game and it was his deft kick behind Stade’s cover which was now in disarray allowed Zebo to collect and score under the posts for the third try. Munster were now reveling in their surroundings as Stade were struggling to gain any game line advantage. Andy Farrell influence or not but Munster’s  line speed was remarkably improved and the first time tackles were executed with a vigor and intensity not seen for several months. The bonus point was secured with twelve minutes remaining on the clock as good incisive work from Conor Murray at scrum-time setup possession for inspirational CJ Stander to cross over. Stander’s man of the match award was well merited but the Munster team to a man stood up to the criticism and produced a performance which is now the blueprint for squad development going forward. The performance needs to be reproduced in the weeks to come. Stade were left shell shocked and they were unable to secure a vital losing bonus point as repeated players in isolated areas were held up and ball was conceded to the hosts. Stade will refocus and look to the Leicester Tigers game to secure the win to secure a top eight berth. With Leicester already through and a home quarter final in the bag, Stade will fancy their chances of winning this contest but they were given a rough reality check by Munster whose work rate and ability to knock Stade off their game plan was notable throughout. Munster win, the win is welcome but it should not be over stated. Munster had zero pressure or expectation in this round but the pride in the performance was admirable. Axel Foley will reflect on this campaign with regret but at least this result can be used as a stepping stone for further team improvement.

Leinster’s cubs have opened an intriguing question for head coach Leo Cullen. The quality and caliber of performance witnessed by youngsters such as Treacy, Ringrose, Van den Flier was immense. Their ability to contribute in all facets of play caught the eye and their energy level simply overwhelmed a Bath team who have being extremely disappointing in this tournament. Leinster were dominant throughout. The hosts pack dominated large chunks of play and Ian Madigan kicking penalties and orchestrating Leinster’s attack with confidence, this was Leinster’s best performance of the season. The young players in the Leinster squad have flat out exposed the regulars in their work rate, skills execution and ability to make the right play at the right time. Cullen will be relieved of this decision as 6N looms but the likes of Treacy in particular have to be fast tracked. His performance in the Leinster pack was sensational in all facets and his mobility around the park was immense. Tadhg Furlong has taken a bit of flak in this blog but I will give the Wexford native his due today, excellent performance in set piece and open play. Marty Moore may leave for England next season but Leinster are unearthing talent which offset these losses. Cullen will rue the start of this European campaign but at least he was able to run the rule over his fledgling squad members and the majority have passed the Bath test. Wasps next will pose a different challenge but Leinster are building serious momentum for a serious Pro 12 push.

In last week’s column, I mentioned the need for Ulster to perform for the full eighty minutes. This point was emphasized in yesterday’s 33-17 loss to a Saracens team who have all the attributes now to win the top European prize. Ulster started this contest with gusto and with McCloskey tenaciously carrying ball and winning the game line battle, Ulster went in front courtesy of a smart Luke Marshall try in that opening period. Saracens did not panic however and their pack took charge with a performance which will strike fear for any of the quarter finalists come April. An emphatic maul from the hosts before the interval set the tone and with Ulster’s defense waning under the strain of constant Saracens go forward ball, three more tries were scored. Ulster were a well beaten side at the end of this contest but the real test is next weekend and the home tie to Oyonnax, a five point haul and Ulster will advance to the last eight of this competition. Leicester away potentially could be their last eight opponent and if Ulster can put together a complete eighty minute performance, there is still hope for the Kingspan Stadium team in Europe this season. Toulouse succumbed to Oyonaax away, another devastating, reputation sapping defeat for an once proud regional powerhouse. Time, legacy and divine right to win matches moves on and Toulouse are in serious danger of being left behind the likes of Toulon, Stade, Racing in domestic competition let alone compete in European action.

 

Andy Farrell – Munster Saviour?

andy_farrell

Ladies and Gentlemen of Munster, this is the man that has being entrusted by Munster Rugby to rescue Munster head coach Anthony Foley and backroom staff buddies from the abyss. Andy Farrell’s announcement as the new Ireland defensive coach raised some eyebrows last week and this surprise news today will add to the intrigue into the future of Foley as the man to lead the team going forward. Hawkeye Sidekick analyzes the part-time appointment and wonders if it will make any difference to change the fortunes of a team who have being exposed in all facets this season.

If Munster fans start to look at Andy Farrell and his last job assignment as assistant England head coach as a barometer is fool hardy. Farrell’s credentials as player and coach is impressive. His playing career in rugby league will be remembered for his stellar career at Wigan Warriors where his game management, play making, penalty kicking and sheer determination to win were his hallmarks. His 3164 points haul for the club is legendary which led to multiple league and Challenge Cup honors.

Farrell’s ability to play either in the pack, fly-half caught the eye during this tenure which led to Saracens acquiring the player in 2005. The transition to rugby union was tough but Farrell did play in multiple positions including fly-half, back row and three quarters. Farrell also featured with England during this spell. Farrell’s retirement from playing took place in 2009 which saw a seamless transition into coaching with Saracens.

His vast rugby knowledge led to Farrell being appointed as Saracens first team coach at the end of 2010 and it alerted the head honchos of England RFU who installed the Wigan native as part of Stuart Lancaster’s backroom staff. The coaching accolades continued with a pivotal role in the Lions tour of 2013 acting as a defensive coach where the Lions displays were marked with an aggressive defensive structure with quick line speed and communication key.

The England role continued to catch the eye until the debacle of the Rugby World Cup but the blame for England’s demise is not solely on Farrell as both players and management cowered in the midst of media leaks and pressure to perform as host nation. Farrell was subsequently relieved of his national team duties by new manager Eddie Jones last month and so led to the announcement of Ireland’s new defensive coach. Due to gardening leave issues, Farrell cannot take up the new position until the Summer tour but his experience and know how were instantly attractive for IRFU and news that Farrell will work part-time with Munster will give Farrell a chance to embed in the Irish provinces and see the talent at his disposal when he takes on the defensive role with the national team come June.

Why?

Munster Rugby are like a ship which has lost all power and control and is mercilessly close to the rocks. The 27-7 loss away to Stade last weekend was painful in numerous reasons; the lack of organization, the lack of game plan, the lack of player commitment to the cause was in full view and it required someone from the outside to somehow evaluate and provide recommendations to the beleaguered head coach and backroom staff whose lack of experience has being wholly exposed in this wretched run of results. Farrell’s arrival is on a part-time basis but one gets the sense that once the Wigan native sees the issues in full view on the training paddock that the one / two day a week involvement could increase drastically. Garrett Fitzgerald should realize that Farrell will need to be more hands in this crisis in the team than just the paltry one or two days a week. Otherwise it is akin to Nanny Day care coming to a family in chaos for two days and leave again with no resolution in sight. It would be perceived by the hardcore Munster fan as a PR exercise to take the flak away from the Munster Rugby hierarchy who have flat out ignored the academy system, contingency planning to replace the likes of O’Connell, O’Callaghan  over the last eight years.

Verdict

Provided that Andy Farrell is given the necessary scope to perform his role, I would expect massive improvements in the Munster first team setup. The defensive line speed which has being so abysmal this season should improve. It is a fundamental principle of Andy Farrell’s defensive ethos; close space and stay organized defensively. Farrell’s knowledge in multiple positions particularly when it comes to out-half play, play making will be invaluable for coaches such as Ian Costello and Brian Walsh who have struggled to get the team executing in terms of game management (kicking / tactical). Farrell will ask IRFU to improve the number ten competition. The fact that Keatley looks beleaguered, bereft of confidence means that a potential loan signing is required. Bleyendaal is a bust signing and should be released immediately. Farrell will tell it as it is, no connection to the setup unlike certain management and the truth will hurt. Farrell’s role in Munster will allow him to evaluate IRFU talent player pool as well and sees how Irish indigenous players react to his coaching methods. This is a progressive move from IRFU to aid Munster who are ailing but it remains to be seen how much impact Farrell will have on first team affairs. The management and player trust looks weak on the basis of last weekend’s performance and Farrell’s arrival could be the olive branch to rid the squad of players not good enough for this level and allow the money created to be invested on several shrewd signings. Thank you Andy Farrell for taking this on, you are a brave man. Be honest and truthful and give it your best shot. Axel Foley, listen, listen, listen.

European Rugby Champions Cup: Oyannax 23 – 24 Ulster

erc_logo

The final play of the game at the quaint surroundings of Oyannax spoke volumes. Ulster had wheeled the host scrum and with it ended the contest despite the match official initially insisting that Ulster needed to front up one more time in a scrum set piece. The TMO had different ideas and instructed the referee to blew full-time. A palpable sense of relief erupted from the Ulster camp as Oyannax scratched their heads to figure out how they blew a twenty-three point lead at the interval.

The proverbial game of two halves at Oyannax was in full view. The hosts pounced on a quite disjointed Ulster first half performance. Les Kiss’ decision to rest key players such as Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Jackson and Nick Williams was horribly backfiring. The half-back partnership of Paul Marshall and Ian Humphries struggling to provide the game management and street smarts to get Ulster on the front foot. The pack were struggling to compete against a feisty host front five who dominated lineout and scrum early doors.

Oyannax to their credit were full value for their twenty-three point lead. They defended with organization and when Ulster coughed ball took full advantage evident in Tawalo’s lung bursting effort from his own half just before half-time. Fantastic try for the hosts but Ulster were their own worse enemy. The hosts thought they had the job done at half-time, think again.

Ulster were a team transformed in the second half. The introduction of Pienaar and Jackson at half-back brought the stability, flair and creativity to launch Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey in the three quarters. Their implosive skill and pace allowed Rory Scholes to revel in that second half and the winger started the comeback with a try which some of the Munster back line on duty yesterday would drool over. Impressive running line to receive a Pienaar pass to break the game line but the pace and tenacity to evade several Oyannax players for the try gave Ulster renewed hope.

This is a contest which we will potentially reflect on the emergence of Paddy Jackson to deliver at the highest level. When Ulster needed their number ten to deliver, Jackson delivered in spades. His game management and penalty kicking were on the money throughout. He was also helped by a rejuvenated Ulster pack who now were executing effectively in set piece (stealing lineout and gaining parity in scrum set piece).

Oyannax were now suddenly on the back foot after the sensational Scholes try opener and when Gilroy scored in the corner which Jackson nailed the resultant conversion, it was game on after sixty-one minutes. Ulster fans in attendance could sense that victory was now attainable, their voices getting louder as the hosts started to get restless, a comfortable lead now reduced to crumbs of comfort.

McCall who has being an absolute revelation for Ulster in the front row this season then crashed over after splendid work from Best and Luke Marshall. McCall’s athleticism for a front row is staggering and it must be a question of when the youngster gets the nod for national team selection. Jackson again unerring on the conversion to leave only two points in the contest.

The ultimate game winning penalty could define Paddy Jackson and provide Joe Schmidt with the evidence that the player can now deal with the pressures of international rugby at out-half. Last weekend, Jackson spurned two late penalty misses to hand victory over Munster. This weekend, Jackson nailed the penalty kick from inside his own half to send Ulster fans in the stands into raptures.

There was still a potential sting in the tale as Oyannax again pounced on a lapse in Ulster concentration to win the ball from the restart. The ball was now dangerously in Ulster’s twenty-two and one collapse or slip from the Ulster front row would mean curtain in European Cup ambitions. Ulster had an opportunity to clear their lines but Oyannax disrupted to win a scrum to setup the last phrase of play. Credit Ulster, their pack rose to the challenge and forced Oyannax to concede possession. A breathtaking game of rugby and Ulster are now in pole position to secure a best runner up spot.

The appointment of Les Kiss as Ulster head coach is paying dividends already early doors into his tenure. His no nonsense approach is refreshing and holds his player to account where previous management perhaps did not. Kiss’ praise for Rory Best at half-time surely will be heard by Joe Schmidt as Ireland look to identify a captain to fill the void of Paul O’Connell. Rory Best is a natural leader, well respected in the Ireland camp and deserves his chance of captaincy.

Ulster realize that massive improvement is required to compete with Saracens in London. Their first half performance was deplorable but unlike Munster were able to call on superior squad options to rescue the day. The first half performance exposed weak areas particularly in the half-back positions. If Pienaar or Jackson go down with injured, it could be curtains for Ulster.

The good news is that Ulster’s back line has the potency and potential to upset any team on their day. The three quarter partnership of Marshall and McCloskey continues to blossom and when you have speed merchants such as Gilroy and Scholes, good things usually follow with tries.

Ulster chief concern is now to find the consistency in performance for a full eighty minutes. If they do that, then Les Kiss’ charges will be a match of anyone. A great end for Irish rugby after a miserable performance from Munster yesterday evening. Joe Schmidt, are you watching. Ulster players are on form and need to play in the 6N tournament.

European Rugby Champions Cup: Stade Francais 27 – 7 Munster

erc_logo

I have deliberately delayed my blog post on this match until this afternoon. I needed time to reflect on the magnitude of this defeat for Munster Rugby, not just the team, not just for a besieged management, not just for the Munster Rugby hierarchy but for the province in general which prides itself in desire, hunger, love for the jersey, ability to front up and support team mates in the heat of battle. Those traits are the prerequisite for any Munster team who go out on the pitch competitively but yesterday it was missing in every facet.

Opening Optimism?

Where do you start to dissect a Munster performance which was devoid of any genuine game plan, lack of work rate, falling repeatedly off tackles and accountability for your actions? Munster actually started this contest well with Ian Keatley pinning Stade Francais deep in their own half with some well placed kicks into space.

Munster’s early dominance was short lived and yet again Munster failed to work the scoreboard after a couple of forays deep into Stade territory. the board. Keatley’s encouraging start evaporated as soon as he missed his first penalty attempt on twenty-five minutes. The kick was narrowly wide but such is the low confidence of the player currently that his game fell to pieces thereafter.

Injury woes

Munster management will be called into account for this shambolic display. Their decision to rely on players who were clearly not match fit was clearly evident early in this contest. BJ Botha, the warrior of the squad cannot be faulted for effort and putting his body on the line but after coming off second best in his opening tackle of the game was forced to retire. Andrew Conway was the second Munster player to depart the scene with a leg injury, was clearly uncomfortable from the first whistle. Tommy O’Donnell then followed after a head knock, some may say that O’Donnell is being rushed back to action too soon and will add more fuel to this fire. The distinct lack of quality in the squad is prompting Munster management to make these decisions but it is a damning predicament.

Red Zone Precision

Stade Francais had shown precious little in the first thirty minutes of this contest but then burst into life with a try which was soft in the extreme. There appeared little problems for Munster when Samoan Paul Williams received a ball in the attacking line on thirty-two minutes but a lapse of concentration and communication from Dave Foley and Dave Kilcoyne saw Williams see a big gap which the Samoan gleefully accepted. Munster never lifted a finger on the player as Stade opened the scoring. After all the hard work of the previous thirty or so minutes, Munster were hit with a rotten sucker punch, one which they never recovered from. Stade sensing disarray in the Munster camp continued to push and after the hosts destroyed Munster at scrum time on thirty-six minutes, Steyn slotted the resultant penalty.

To Gouge or not that is the question?

Stade now in full control but then came the major talking point of the contest. Raisuqe will only know why he did what he did, a rush of blood to the head moment by looking for the face of CJ Stander. The TV replays of Raisuqe hand raking the eye of Stander was abhorrent. Nigel Owens never saw the initial incident but after his TMO asked for the incident to be replayed, the evidence was a slam dunk. Raisuqe had to see red and one thought Munster had hope of another miracle get out of jail game away from Thomond Park. Unfortunately, it only lasted a minute as Ian Keatley clearly irked by his previous penalty miss lacked the conviction to slot the long range penalty to give Munster renewed momentum.

Second Half Munster Trauma

The second half performance will be remembered as one of the dark days for Munster Rugby. It ranks even worse than Munster fifty point drubbings away to Toulouse in the early days of European Rugby competition. Munster were exposed in all facets of play, heart, work rate and accountability in that forty minutes.

Stade’s scrum destroyed Munster’s pack throughout and yielded penalty after penalty, one wonders how Nigel Owens did not sin bin a Munster front row player such was the dominance of Stade in particular when Slimani was introduced. John Ryan was spared further punishment, the substitute subbed for Sagario and the Uruguayan forward did not fair much better.

Stade minus their full complement sensed blood in the third quarter and put the game to bed with two quick fire tries which will have Munster management having nightmares for months to come. If anyone can name any Munster player who actually attempted to tackle flanker Macalou and full-back Bonneval for their respective tries, please send me the name of the player(s) on a stamp addressed envelope. Simon Zebo’s attempt to stop Bonneval was shocking to say the least. Game over and the fact that Munster scored late on via Conor Murray could not mask a horrendously shambolic, reputation shattering eighty minutes for Munster Rugby as a brand. 

The lack of back line bite and execution was again missing in spades. Rory Scannell scored superbly in the corner early into the second half but again a poor forward pass in the lead up was costly. Zebo looked to conjure something which was never on throughout, the lack of awareness and ability to make the right decision at the right time was shocking from a player which you would now consider to be a senior player of the squad. Keith Earls, anonymous throughout and his lack of kicking game was exposed. His horror slice clearing his lines early doors was a sign of things to come. Senior players needed to step up for Munster but it never materialized.

Stade realistically did not get out of second gear, they were patient and bullied Munster throughout. They were superior in all areas of the park and the second half performance exposed how far behind Munster are in basic skill sets. CJ Stander once more tried to take the game to his opponent but there were precious few leaders among Stander to make Munster anyway competitive. The lack of fight and surrender in that third quarter will not be forgotten.

The long road to redemption

Where do Munster go from here? Lack of long term planning and contingency to replace Munster stalwarts in the last five years has now come home to roost. At least, ten players in this current Munster squad would struggle in the AIL 1A. Squad limitations in full view, repeated unforced errors week in week out. There appears to be zero improvement in reducing the error count. What is currently going on in the training sessions? Munster look well short in all facets; conditioning, physicality (pack were blown away) and basic attack line and game plan are all missing. The lack of out-half competition is an embarrassment for Munster Rugby.

The spotlight will focus on Munster head coach Axel Foley, questions on the Shannon stalwart future with the club will continue to circulate. To blame Axel alone would not be answering the issues currently in the Munster Rugby organization. All areas of the club need now to be reviewed.

The scouting networks, the ability to identify indigenous players in the province and also casting the net further to Connacht and Leinster schools is now required. Munster flat out cannot compete with the aristocrats of France (Stade, Toulon, Racing, Clermont) and England (Bath, Leicester, Wasps, Northampton) such are the levels of investment in these clubs. Munster need to adapt and be smarter identifying talent who will add competition for places. IRFU need to provide guidance and leadership to the province in their hour of need. Can outside investment be sought to overhaul the club from a playing / managerial staff level?

Munster Schools Rugby needs to change dramatically. The results orientated culture in schools rugby is precedent over developing basic fundamental skill sets. Junior Rugby competition format should change; sevens competitions, ball in hand only games to improve open play awareness for both backs and forwards.

The fact that there is no Clare, Kerry or Waterford Munster Senior School teams(top grade)  is damning; setup a divisional team for each of these counties and increase the player pool to evaluate at this competition grade. Munster scouting networks need to adapt, the days of player pools in the big schools are now a thing of the past. New Zealand regional centers model need to be setup, identify players in each county and track these players through the system and even scourge the other province schools to build up an academy to a level which will drive competition in the first team squad. It is happening to a certain extent but needs to be increased. Indigenous development is now paramount for Munster Rugby to survive.

Munster’s basic running lines were shocking at best, no attacking line intent, just offload the ball to a colleague sideways without asking any question of an opponent’s defensive skill set. Rob Penney tried to change this mindset during his tenure but that has being removed from memory by current management where Brian Walsh’s role has to be called into account. The back line play this season has being wholly unacceptable; no direction or attacking line plays on full view.

There are no quick fixes to this demise. Munster Rugby’s reputation as a formidable rugby brand is at a low ebb. Munster hierarchy, fans, management and playing squad need to adapt and make necessary changes to stem the decline in fortunes ever since Tony McGahan era. The fans will support the team but expectations now need to be tempered, no divine right to expect that this current squad can beat any team at this time. January 9th, 2016 – a day which will make or break Munster Rugby long term. A province and IRFU holds it breathe.

Guinness Pro 12: Ulster 7 – 9 Munster

pro12_logo

Everyone loves a good panto this time of year, the variety of characters which range from the villain to middle of the road (forgettable character) to the hero captures the imagination of young and old alike. Munster’s festive period could be best described as the classic panto season, a period which has not garnered much joy in the Munster camp with five losses on the bounce ranging from villain and mediocrity displays but culminating in a hard fought win over Ulster at the Kingspan where out-half Ian Keatley (the abandoned outcast and sacrificial lamb) turned into the panto hero finally.

The omens were not good for Munster leading into this contest. Ulster on the back of a fantastic double win over once European aristocrats Toulouse and a hard earned victory over Connacht on St.Stephen’s Day. Munster’s form has being the stuff of nightmares; endeavor and work rate a plenty but little creativity or game management to put pressure on the scoreboard.

Munster started this contest with tempo and work rate with CJ Stander in the heart of all that was good in the early exchanges. The match day conditions made the track slow and ball handling treacherous at times so it was not surprise that Munster decided to go for the posts after ten minutes after sustained pressure on Ulster’s twenty-two. Keatley’s first kick, some Munster fans may have forgiven not to look at the kick but the out-half confidently kicked the penalty to give the visitors a deserved early lead.

The early score awoke Ulster from their slumber and the rest of the half was bossed by the hosts with McCloskey and Marshall at three quarters showing great awareness with several neat offloads and running lines. Pienaar and O’Leary were having a stirring contest at scrum-half and after the South African was pinged for holding on after twenty minutes reacted to Sherry and Saiili, a sign that the South African was not enjoying his afternoon.

To Munster’s credit, their defensive structure held amidst a stern Ulster examination and indeed the visitors could have extended their lead when Rory Scannell made a break from midfield. Ulster stopped the rookie ten meters out but it highlighted Munster’s lack of support for the ball carrier, would have expected at least one of Scannell’s colleagues to be in support to give the player an option to offload. The chance was spurned and eight minutes later, Munster were punished for their inaccuracy in controversial circumstances.

Ulster offside and knock-on not pinged by the match officials before Ludik exposed space in the Munster defense to score. Decisions such as this destroy teams who are struggling for form but Munster were not to be deterred, stemming the early second half Ulster attacks and Keatley assured at ten slotted over a tidy drop-goal effort nearing the end of the third quarter.

As Ulster struggled to assert dominance with several knock ons in promising attacking positions, Munster capitalized with ultimately the go ahead score. Keatley again slotting over from a penalty on sixty-two minutes. Munster were now in front, unfamiliar territory. The lead yet again exposed infuriating mistakes seen during this winless run; cheap penalty concessions, offside which yielded two penalty opportunities.

Paddy Jackson’s first effort from forty-meters had the accuracy but failed just short. His second effort was pushed, realizing that his fifty meter kick needed more power and his accuracy suffered.

The second penalty opportunity was shambolic from a Munster perspective. Amorosino’s shaky full-back cameo completed with a knock-on attempting to keep a Jackson deep kick in play which resulted in van den Heever picking up the ball in an offside position; a phrase of play which drives head coaches potty. The Munster dressing room would have being interesting if Jackson had slotted the late penalty award.

Munster’s tackle count and work rate got them over the line as the weather elements prevented Ulster from letting loose out wide. The positives for Munster was that the team put pride back into jersey. It may not have being pretty but the sum of the parts was enough today to secure a much needed win to relieve the pressure from all concerned with the camp.

Special mention to man of the match Ian Keatley. Keatley’s performance today was admirable considering the abuse and critics (yes, I was one of them on here) he has received in recent weeks. Keatley’s play was stripped down, basic fundamentals were executing well and his kicking both out of hand and on the tee was on point throughout. Keatley deserved his man of the match accolade and with no viable competition for his position, one hopes for Munster that Keatley’s confidence will soar for the rest of the season.

Ulster will look at this game as an opportunity lost. Their recent good run is halted. Munster work rate stifled Ulster for long periods but they still managed to have two kicks late in this game to win the contest. The weather elements conspired as Marshall running lines were sublime at times. Williams was as abrasive as ever from eight. Ulster will bounce back and perhaps it was a nice reality check to receive ahead of European games against Oyonaax and Saracens.

The final words though are for Munster captain CJ Stander, the guy is an utter inspiration. Many a player would have stayed down after that horrendous facial injury but the South African is made of stern stuff and resumed action with a performance full of passion, work rate and integrity. These qualities emanated throughout the Munster ranks and one hopes that CJ Stander receives his recognition with an Ireland 6N cameo next month. CJ Stander, a South African by birth but a Munster man by the Grace of God!