A weekend where the regular Guinness Pro 12 season came to a conclusion. A season for some which could not end quick enough (Treviso, Zebre, Dragons, Blues), a season for some to forget (Munster, Ospreys and Edinburgh) while it was a season to savor for the men of Connacht. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action in Limerick and Galway and wonders will Munster Rugby learn anything from this season’s campaign failings?
Munster win to secure top flight European Cup Rugby
Anthony Foley said it as much in the post-game comments immediately after Munster’s bonus point victory 31-15 over a limited Llanelli Scarlets at the medium sized Thomond Park crowd.
This was a game which Munster needed to be won first, performance came a very remote second, just get over the line and win the game to secure European Champions Cup Rugby next season.
The prospect of travelling potentially to exotic places such as Siberia in the middle of November no doubt spurred Munster players on in recent weeks to produce two bonus point performances to finish sixth in the league.
This game was strange in the extreme. Llanelli Scarlets bossed the early exchanges but found themselves 7-3 down after the first quarter. Munster’s defensive scheme just about held up to scrutiny and when presented with a half-chance deep inside their twenty-two plundered with the efficiency not regularly seen by the men in red this season.
Huge credit for the first try must go to Francis Sailli whose deft drubber kick created the space for Earls to run onto the ball and after evading several tackles who had the composure to delay his pass to the support line runner (yes, supporting line runner) of Sailli to finish the score from midfield.
The normal service of Munster coughing easy scores after scoring reared its head consistently in this contest. It is a facet of play which has killed Munster in games this season; any momentum quickly extinguished.
After a splendidly worked second try, the hosts gifted the Scarlets easy points from the boot of Shingler to only lead 14-9 at the break. The penalty concessions were frustrating; offside, not rolling away. Rassi Erasmus will see the statistics for himself on July 1st and discipline will be a key area of focus next season.
The second half was an incredibly nervy affair from Munster, littered with basic skill set errors in the third quarter allowed Scarlets to get within two points but spurred on by a boisterous home crowd came through in the last quarter to score three unanswered tries to put a gloss on proceedings. Ronan O’Mahoney’s try again the end product of more Scarlets unforced errors (pass going astray) for the Grangewood native to score the try.
CJ Stander was immense throughout, his ball carries throughout the game set the platform for which Munster launched their attacks. Johnny Holland continues to learn his craft at ten; tough day at the office on the tee but he was assured in his overall game management and defensive duties even though Scarlets clearly targeted the rookie.
Munster must learn from this season and fast. No distinct player recruitment for the new head coach to work with. The current group of players will be buoyed by the return of Peter O’Mahoney (second row role potentially) but questions a plenty for the new coach in the front row where the scrum again was bossed around and the lineout set piece was average to be kind.
It is blatantly clear that the Munster front five do not “put the fear of god” into opposition anymore and Munster Rugby need to provide funds for Erasmus to address the void left by Botha, O’Connell and O’Callaghan.
The back row is solid but then questions emerge in the half-back options. When you take out Murray, there is not a lot of options at nine and the ten situation was a running joke throughout the season after JJ Hanrahan hit the road for the East Midlands.
There is still a future for Ian Keatley and I think the player did himself no harm at all with an assured performance at full-back when Zebo was forced to retire from proceedings. Keatley also provides coverage at twelve and despite a wretched season, the player has a role at the rugby club.
Interesting developments beckon in Munster come the off-season. Who comes to join Erasmus in the backroom staff and playing squad? Can Munster Rugby provide enough financial liquidity to attract one or two tried and trusted world stars? Will the fan base come back to Thomond Park or will the disillusionment which was seen in the lack of attendance numbers be now the norm?
Connacht continue to take the plaudits
14-7, a scoreline which secured Connacht’s home playoff semi-final berth. The decision of Pat Lam to rest nine first team starters in Italy last weekend was now merited.
The slippy, wet conditions made expansive running rugby a danger hazard but Connacht showed in this contest the grit, the street smarts and game management to get over the line, a nice omen ahead of the playoffs.
The game was hugely influenced by the Glasgow red card. Puafisi was committed but his head first contact on Kieran Marmion was dangerous and a red card was produced (some will say that a lack of consistency on another day yielded a yellow card).
Bundee Aki has had a marvelous season. He has led the team with his attacking play; his swashbuckling game line yards and tries have provided momentum to Connacht. His first half try demontrated Aki’s strengths; decision making and strength were paramount.
Connacht had to withstand long periods of pressure from Glasgow but their defensive line was quick all game. First tackles were made and colleague support in the breakdown exchanges resulted in Glasgow receiving extremely slow ball to work with.
Gregor Townsend will rue the red card as his charges were just getting a grip of the contest. A smart finish from Gordon Reid in the early exchanges of the second half should have set the platform for the Warriors to win the game but it was not to be.
Connacht won the game with a try which encompassed all that has being good about Pat Lam’s charges this season. The deft kick from O’Leary realizing there was space out wide was admirable but the take from O’Halloran in the wet conditions was unbelievable. A try fitting to win any contest.
The two sides face each other again in two weeks in the playoff semi-final. Glasgow know what needs to be done and if it is a dry day and fast track, expect fireworks from these two teams.