DESPITE a commendable effort, Munster left Allianz Park extremely frustrated on Saturday, following their 15-6 defeat to European Champions Saracens, as they put themselves into a winning position only for poor execution and decision-making to ensure they left empty-handed.
That may sound overly critical and hyperbolic, but if Munster see themselves as potential Champions Cup winners then they cannot deny it is the truth.
After a gallant effort, Munster’s impressive defence eventually yielded two late tries to Sean Maitland and Mako Vunipola, and suddenly Munster were faced with the prospect of leaving London with nothing. Then, in the 75th minute, a reprieve, as Munster were awarded a kickable penalty about 35m out. At least they would depart with a losing bonus point, or so it seemed.
Instead Munster fans looked on, confused, as they kicked for the corner. The ball was soon turned over, and Munster’s last chance to take something from this Round 4 tie evaporated.
The decision as to whether to kick at goal or go down the line on Saturday was not a difficult one. There was only one call to make. Stand-in skipper CJ Stander failed to make it.
It was a game they looked like winning, at one point, and they ended up leaving with nothing. They are certainly making qualification from Pool 4 extremely difficult for themselves.
In the game’s aftermath, Munster coach Johann van Graan fully backed his players’ decision to go for the corner, but you would imagine that, in private, the message will be very different.
There was absolutely no upside to Munster going to the corner in the 75th minute. A converted try would have got the exact same reward as they would have gotten if they had simply slotted the penalty for the three points — ie, a losing bonus point. The game was gone from Munster at that point. All they could hope for was to take the losing bonus point on offer and get out of Allianz Park and regroup.
Instead, they looked the gift horse in the mouth and decided ‘no thanks’. It was the totally unprofessional thing to do in the circumstances, and questions need to be answered, even if only in-house.
The thing is, this is not an isolated incident.
In recent articles this column has criticised the Munster decision-making on numerous occasions this season. In critical moments Munster’s key players keep making the wrong decisions. We can spend time complaining about these individual errors in judgement by the players in red, but when it keeps happening then the Munster coaching team have to start taking some of the blame.
It looks as though it is high time that game management is actually coached, as there appears to be a serious issue with it at the minute.
Munster can, of course, consider themselves extremely unfortunate in the injury department, as they lost four key players before and during the game. Captain Peter O’Mahony did not even make the kick-off due to a groin injury and prop John Ryan limped off towards the end of the first half with a calf injury, while winger Andrew Conway was later lost to a failed HIA.
The biggest injury, however, was to Tadhg Beirne, who suffered a horrible looking ankle injury. The sight of a player being stretched off while being administered oxygen is never a good one. You can only assume that it is the type of injury that would keep Beirne out for a few months, at least.
All these injuries ensured that Munster did not have a fresh bench to spring in the last quarter, and that is ultimately when Saracens inflicted the damage on the scoreboard. Perhaps if those injuries had not occurred it may have worked out differently, but those are the breaks.
A lot will be made out of JJ Hanrahan’s penalty miss in the 50th minute. It looked a routine penalty, yet it was badly hooked. A successful kick would have put Munster 9-3 in front, and would have completely changed the way the game transpired from there on in. You simply cannot miss those types of opportunities at this level.
That penalty, and the missed drop goal at the death versus Racing, could end up having huge consequences come January in terms of Munster’s progression, or lack of it.
There were plenty of positives for Munster to take away. One will be that they are still in the tournament, even if they are now hanging by their finger tips.
The formula is now a very simple one. Win in Paris the next time out against Racing and then ensure a bonus point victory in the final match against the Ospreys at Thomond Park in January.
If they manage that then they would, more than likely, finish ahead of Racing, provided, of course, that Saracens also defeat Racing on that final weekend.
The sight of the hapless Ospreys scoring five tries against Racing, even in defeat, will have given some cause for optimism for Munster. The French side can clearly be got at. Of course, the fact that they scored six tries of their own points to a different problem, that they will be extremely hard to contain on their own turf.
That is for another day. Munster must now look towards getting their walking wounded back into combat asap in order to consolidate their position at the top of their Pro14 conference over Christmas. If they can do that, and get the likes of Joey Carbery back into the fold, then they can have a right crack at Racing in the new year.