A disappointing to start to the new year for Munster with a loss against Ulster.
This first loss of the season brings an end to a nine-match undefeated run, but Munster won’t be that dejected with their losing bonus point.
Any side who can travel to Ulster after making 14 changes to their previous team sheet and end up losing the game by just five points will have lots of positives to chat about.
In all but name this was really a second-string Munster side, but the experience gained by some of the younger squad members is probably worth more than a victory itself, especially when you consider Munster’s elevated position at the top of conference B.
With Johann van Graan’s squad having the luxury of knowing that their place in the Guinness Pro 14 final is as good as signed, sealed and delivered, it was great that he opted to place his faith in a vast amount of his less experienced players for this inter-provincial tie.
No matter how hard you train in a none competitive environment it is impossible to replicate the same kind of pressures that exist in a league or cup game and to see players like Shane Daly, Calvin Nash, Liam Coombes; Ben Healy, Craig Casey and Liam O’Connor look so comfortable in a senior Munster jersey brought a very welcome boost in these troubled times.
It was also super to see Jack O’Sullivan, Dan Goggin and Darren Sweetnam back after some long-term injuries.
Having players of this calibre back in the fold is such a fantastic plus for the Munster coaching ticket because it is so important to have as many players fit and ready for action as possible.
Professional rugby is such an uncompromising sport now and squad numbers can fluctuate from plenty to panic stations over a very short period of time so the more players that are available for training, the higher your standards will become.
Munster could easily have ended up winning the game were it not for a sluggish start and despite Ulster fielding a very well-seasoned side and hitting Munster very early with two slick and well worked try’s, the northerners just about managed to hold on.
Starting slow seems to be a habit that Munster must look at eradicating very soon especially if they are to end their ten-year trophy drought and despite their never say die attitude, when it comes to winning silverware you cannot give the more accomplished sides a sniff of the finishing line because if they get their noses in front they will have too much experience to relinquish their lead.
With only sixteen minutes showing on the match day clock Ulster had two tries under their belts and were looking odds on to end the night with a bonus point victory, but Munster settled down and through some fantastic turn overs by Chris Cloete and a far more aggressive defensive line, Munster started to gain the upper hand.
As a spectacle the game wasn’t one that will be remembered for very long however, if you ever wanted an example of what a pain in the ass on the rugby field looks like you can reference the contribution offered by Munster’s South African open side, Chris Cloete.
Were it not for Cloete’s ability to either slow down or turn over Ulster’s ball every time they looked to play with speed and width, Munster would have most certainly conceded way more than just the two tries.
Playing against someone like Cloete whose strength and centre of gravity offers the perfect combination to become a textbook openside is extremely frustrating and he was by far the most effective player on show.
How Ulster winger Ethan McIlroy was awarded the man of the match award over Cloete just beggars belief?
Munster’s much lauded half back pairing of Casey and Healy probably didn’t get enough clean ball to show what they are capable of albeit, what shines through every time they are afforded the opportunity to play together is the level of confidence and maturity they demonstrate.
At just twenty-one years of age, both Healy and Casey have the world at their feet and if Healy is allowed leave Munster and link up with the Glasgow Warriors, who have already made him a very palpable offer, both Munster and the I.R.F.U should hang their heads in shame.
Holding on to players like this dynamic duo should be a priority for the I.R.F.U and perhaps if they paid them accordingly, they wouldn’t have to be scouring the Southern hemisphere for alternative players.
If I were to be critical of Munster’s over all play it was their lack of ability to make clean line breaks.
It may have been bitterly cold in Belfast (-3) but it was a perfect night to play ball and at times we saw Munster return to their one out runners who were gobbled up by the physically stronger team.
At this point it would be wrong of me not to mention Connacht’s incredible victory over Leinster.
It may have taken the Westerners 19 years to achieve such a result, but how they went about their business was a pleasure to watch.
Fly half Jack Carty had an inspired game and with Johnny Sexton leaving the field with yet another head related injury, he might have just put himself in the shop window for the forthcoming Six Nations.
In this shortened season with only the Conference winners going through to the Pro 14 final, the result puts Leinster’s title defence in a small bit of jeopardy ahead of next week’s visit of unbeaten Ulster who sit above them in Conference A.
I would imagine that Leo Cullen will be putting forward his strongest possible side for this game and normal service will be resumed in the fortress that is the RDS.
Munster will be on the road again when they travel to Connacht and even though they have a good bit of wiggle room at the top of their pool, van Grann will not want to be suffering two losses on the bounce especially, with Clermont arriving at the gates of Thomond Park the following week.
Momentum is key now at this point of the season and with so much uncertainty filling the air, it is going to be very interesting to see how the various coaches deal with team selections.
Priority for Munster will be the Champions Cup, but a good and decisive victory over Connacht will form a big part of Munster’s preparation for the crunch European Cup game against Clermont who must be hurting badly.