Munster beat themselves off the Aviva pitch
If a game captured the true essence of a team’s season, then Munster’s eighty minute performance against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium was it. Depending on the side of the fence that you are on, Leinster won this local derby 16-13 by virtue of an excellent defensive display in the last quarter; ability to take points on offer when in the red zone or Munster’s flat out inability to make the right decision both on and off the pitch. Munster will rue this game come season end. They were extremely competitive against a Leinster side who flattered to deceive for huge portions of the game.
The difference in the contest was Sexton whose try before half-time was pivotal in the final outcome. The Ireland fly-half took advantage of Francis Saaili defensive line positioning who was always looking to protect Scannell and Holland at every opportunity to bounce off the post and over for the try. The penalty kick to win the game raised eyebrows with match official Ian Davies telling Sexton that his time to take the kick elapsed but no action was taken.
It was one of several decisions which drew ire from either set of supporters in attendance. Simon Zebo can probably feel relieved not to be penalized for a deliberate knock-on in the first half after a Sexton cross-field aerial bomb. Cian Healy continues to make Joe Schmidt’s job easy with a sin bin cameo late on but Munster by this stage were beating themselves off the park.
Johnny Holland was a distinct positive from the game. The Cork Constitution player reveled in the high octane atmosphere and his sniping run led to Munster’s try after the interval. It was the only piece of invention seen from Munster during the contest and the decision to withdraw him was a massive mistake if the change was made for tactical reasons.
Ian Keatley’s fallibility on the tee was further exposed when his first penalty kick from forty meters lacked any conviction and that set the tone for the rest of the contest. Leinster were confident that their defensive structures would remain intact close range but more significantly were asking Munster to kick points from over thirty meters, a task which was beyond the men in red.
The last quarter exposed the issues which have plighted Munster’s season; work rate a plenty as they consistently advanced deep into Leinster territory but with no confidence in their goal kicker, the pack were forced to take on the mantle of trying to win the contest. This is why Dave Kilcoyne decided to go for broke at the death; he had no confidence in Keatley to produce the goods and more an indictment of Munster management personnel decisions than the replacement player.
Leinster held out but their performance was well short of the standard required to win this competition. Ringrose had flashes of brilliance and Teo on another day could have being pinged for no arm / high hits on opposition players. Leinster win and should have secured a top two on the back of the victory.
Munster are now in sixth and look perilously close to not qualifying for the European Cup. A win against Connacht at the Sportsground is the minimum requirement but with so many issues highlighted in the Leinster defeat, confidence within the team and management must be at a low ebb. They left everything on the line but disastrous game management calls, ineffective goal kicking options and stagnant running lines at the death ruined a hard working performance.
Ulster win but massive improvement required
Connacht were always up against it at Kingspan Stadium. 18-10 was an admirable result considering the injuries pregame and how the game unfolded with two Connacht players sent to the sin bin in the last quarter. The thirteen men of Connacht at times should have being put to the sword but the Ulster tactic of driving through the middle and not looking to unleash the likes of Gilroy was strange in the extreme.
Dudley Philips had no option to send the Connacht players off but his intrepretation at the breakdown was shambolic. How many times did Ulster players come into the breakdown flying in off their feet? The lineout throwing on both sides was a no contest; did not care about how straight the lineout was as was the quality of ball put into the scrum.
The injury to Stuart McCloskey at the end could be a massive blow for Ulster in the season run-in. The center had another powerful game, taking the game to the league leaders before the contest and his game line advances initially launched Ulster back line for some nice scores.
Connacht’s energy levels were quite high considering the energy sapping performance against Leinster in round eighteen but the sheer number of injuries to contend with was a key. Shane O’Leary tried hard to create cohesion out wide but there was a sense that Ulster defensively were able to read the passing patterns O’Leary tried to execute from fly-half.
The performance spoke more Connacht resilience than Ulster cutting edge in the last ten minutes. Connacht would have leaked a couple of tries a few years ago when faced with thirteen players but their defensive structure and determination came through with flying colors. Ulster’s at times brainless game management from multiple set pieces five meters really stood out and one wonders where this team is going.
Massive questions on the team’s style have now emerged and Les Kiss to me does not know what brand of rugby the team should implement. The back line has the skill, pace and nous to break down any defense but the pack at times labored to provide quick ball and their decision to take the ball at the end was the clear wrong one.
Payne at full-back was a highlight; the player is a class act at fifteen and reads the game so well. Robbie Henshaw’s full back positional assignment is because he is leaving the province and to me was a message to the player that he is no longer a key personnel player in the team after his decision to move to Leinster. Robb is the future at twelve and Henshaw should get used to the full-back berth for Connacht until the end of the season.
Glasgow make their move
Glasgow are the team that look to be the team again in the competition. Their international contingent is back and with fast tracks until the end of the season, Glasgow have the expansive rugby game plan to potentially clinch a home field advantage in the playoffs. A regulation win against Treviso away maybe but momentum is building nicely for the Warriors. The last day contest against Connacht could decide who clinches home field advantage, an intriguing prospect beckons.