The David Corkery column: Munster got there but still room for improvement

The David Corkery column: Munster got there but still room for improvement
Munster’s Jeremy Loughman with Ospreys’ Scott Otten. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

IT CERTAINLY wasn’t poetry in motion.

However, a bonus-point victory on the road in any European Cup tie is always worth its weight in gold.

It may have taken until the fifth minute of injury time for Munster to secure their fourth try against a very poor Ospreys outfit. Yet I can guarantee you that when the calculators are required towards the end of the pool stages, nobody will remember the performance and James Cronin’s late, late try will be something that Munster will be thanking their lucky stars for.

We all know that you cannot win anything at this time of the year. However, such is the quality within Munster’s pool that anything less than a bonus-point victory against what is indisputably the weakest team in the group, would have been a complete catastrophe.

Deprived of their World Cup stars and riddled with injuries, the Ospreys have had a shocking start to the season. Having lost five out of their six Guinness Pro 14 fixtures, the Welsh region were always going to struggle in this game. Still, it took the men in red a good fifty minutes to turn the screw and credit must be given to the home side’s resilience.

Heading towards the dressing room at half time Munster were only slightly ahead on the scoreboard (6-13) and that all-important bonus point try seemed like a very distant aspiration. In fact, if you were to be brutally honest the eventual outcome was still very much in the balance.

Two tries in four minutes by Munster’s key danger men, Keith Earls and Andrew Conway ultimately clipped the Ospreys wings and Johann van Graan and his two new sidekicks, Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree could breathe a sigh of relief. A loss to any side at this point of Munster’s European escapade would have not gone down well with the faithful and with a star-studded Racing 92 side arriving in Limerick next week, this win will help ease the nerves of all those involved.

Munster’s inability to bring home any sort of silverware since their brilliant 19-9 win over Leinster at Thomond Park in the Celtic League Grand Final on May 28, 2011 has largely been down to a lack of inventiveness behind the pack. While there have been tiny little glimpses of adventure since the arrival of Larkham, Munster still have a long way to go if they are going to challenge the likes of Leinster, Exeter, Clermont Auvergne, Racing 92 and the cheating Saracens.

Yes, that’s correct, cheating.

The English premiership side may have received one of the harshest punishments in sporting history for breaching the agreed salary cap, involving a £5.4 million fine and a 35-point penalty deduction in their domestic league, but why are they still allowed participate in this competition, and why are they not stripped of their recent titles?

If someone tests positive in athletics for performance-enhancing drugs, they’re stripped of their medal and that medal is then deservingly awarded to the next closest contestant.

I know if I were Leo Cullen or a player in the Leinster team who lost to Saracens in last year’s final, I’d be furious, and I’d be demanding that I receive the correct colour medal.

My guess is that they’ll get their just reward on the pitch this season and won’t even qualify for next year’s competition. I will really be looking forward to the reception they receive in Thomond Park on December 7. I can just imagine some of the comments that will be hurled at them from the terraces by the witty and very knowledgeable locals.

Anyhow back to more important things.

Despite a massive lack of accuracy in their execution, it was refreshing to see that Munster’s forwards have rediscovered the ability to pass the ball whilst looking to make it over the gain line. Even the powerful and ever committed CJ Stander seems to have realised that he is not the only man on the field and he can actually use the man on his left or right to pass the ball too.

It was also encouraging to see players making an attempt to get the ball away during the tackle. I know things won’t change overnight, but at last, there seems to be some kind of collective collaboration amongst the players that Munster’s traditional game plan of keeping it tight must be consigned to the history books.

Munster will never play with the panache and flamboyance that Japan displayed during the World Cup and nor would I want them to. However, they must find a happy medium that allows players like Earls, Conway, Haley, Scannell and Carbery (when fit) to play what’s in front of them, not what they studied on a blackboard.

The other player who looked a bit happier in his socks on Saturday was Conor Murray.

After a disastrous World Cup campaign, Murray looked as if he was enjoying himself on the field once more. He is still a good 30% off his best, but the mechanical nature of his play seems to be evaporating and I would think this is because of Larkham’s influence.

What I’d love to see is the Limerick man returning to having a few little darts around the breakdown and getting the ball away a split second earlier from rucks.

The man of the match was awarded to prop forward Jeremy Loughman which is not too shabby for a first European start.

A product of the Leinster academy, Loughman not only conducted he primary duties of scrummaging and lifting with admirable maturity, but he also displayed some deft footwork with the ball in hand and showed some of the Munster backs how to pass the ball with incredible accuracy and speed.

At 24 years of age, I wonder will Leinster regret leaving him head south, just as the did with Conway.

So, we have the perfect start to what is going to be one hell of a pool for Munster to manoeuvre their way out of. Next week’s challenge is going to be a completely new ball game and will require a special performance from some of the senior players in this squad.

The signs are good, but the real tests are yet to come.

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