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European Rugby Champions Cup: Stade Francais 27 – 7 Munster

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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.