THERE WERE A couple of weeks there when the years rolled away and it felt like the noughties once again. Thomond Park was empty but if you closed your eyes you could hear the ghostly refrains of Stand Up And Fight and could see O’Gara or O’Connell or O’Callaghan stubbornly finding a way to make their team win.
Leinster had finally been conquered; Ulster subsequently destroyed; Munster doing everything right. All those promises of learning from their defeats, well it seemed as if they had finally decided to heed their own advice. Then came Connacht and a Munster performance that left you doubting everything you’d seen across the previous two games.
After that 24-20 defeat, CJ Stander complained about the referee. He may as well have grumbled about the weather.
The truth is Munster had no one to blame bar themselves for their loss. Gifting away 14 cheap points – Connacht scoring a converted try off a restart in the first-half, then another one from a loose Craig Casey pass in the second period – was one problem. A bigger issue, though, was how they failed to seal the deal.
When chasing a game, we all know there is a thin line between urgency and panic. The old Munster walked the high wire without ever thinking about looking down. This team? Every now and then they’re good; other times they fall over the edge.
Here’s a reminder of how they tripped themselves up two weeks back. Trailing 24-14, they made their initial second-half entry into Connacht’s 22 on 42 minutes. They didn’t stay there for long, though, Rhys Marshall’s overthrow gathered by Shane Delahunt at the back of the line-out.
Back they came. Peter O’Mahony – by a distance the one player and leader Munster could depend upon that night – had a try disallowed as a result of Jack O’Donoghue’s indiscipline off the ball. Still, Munster were camped in the Connacht 22, a five-metre scrum leading to a ball slipping out the back before Kieran Marmion pounced on it.
On it went. On 55 minutes they had another scrum penalty but another turnover saw Connacht escape unpunished.
Now to the end-game – Damian de Allende failing to gather Joey Carbery’s 68th minute pass; the South African then knocking on a minute later after O’Mahony had made a lung-busting break down the left wing, the consequence being another try (this time for Andrew Conway) wiped off the board.
Two particularly harsh penalties went against Munster after that, thieving them of both time and territory.
Beirne was harshly penalised for offside at this ruck. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
Still there were enough minutes left on the clock for some magic. But it didn’t come. Matt Gallagher kicked possession away in the 75th minute; de Allende, Jean Kleyn and finally Stephen Archer made handling errors thereafter. In total, Munster scored just six second-half points despite dominating this period.
Had they opted to kick a penalty from in front of the posts on 55 minutes – Ben Healy and Joey Carbery had landed kicks from much longer distances either side of this moment – then they would have been chasing a penalty rather than a try in the closing stages to win it.
Instead, they fell short leaving us to listen, yet again, to a post-match pledge that they’d ‘learn from this’.
At this stage of the competition, you have to wonder what the club’s philosophy is towards this Rainbow Cup. Is it solely about winning silverware and ending their 10-year trophy drought? If the answer to that question is yes, then why leave Tadhg Beirne, Joey Carbery, Conor Murray and Keith Earls on the bench for a game against a team as headstrong and as underrated as Connacht?
Alternatively if this tournament is essentially about experimenting – then you have to be callous and forget about giving CJ Stander, Billy Holland, Tommy O’Donnell, James Cronin and JJ Hanrahan a farewell lap of honour. They won’t be at the club next season, so use the players who will be.
So, somewhere between those policy extremes is where Munster stand.
On the one hand, they appear to have invested hugely on getting to the final – but then it surprises you to see they have handed starts to 29 different players in their three games to date, a number that’ll increase to 30 when Tommy O’Donnell features this evening. Young players – Keynan Knox, Roman Salanoa, Diarmuid Barron, Calvin Nash have been given limited chances – but only from the bench.
Other youngsters, Casey and Ben Healy, have been handed starts – indeed Casey will get another one this evening – but you really have to question why the departing Hanrahan was selected against Ulster rather than Healy.
The upshot now is that fate is no longer in their hands. Two games remain, tonight’s one against Cardiff (kick-off 7.35pm, Live eir Sport) and then a trip to Zebre. Truthfully, though, you’d still expect Munster rather than leaders Benetton to reach the final as the Italians are unlikely to beat both Connacht and Ospreys in their final two games.