Analysis: Munster grabbed a vital win but fringe players failed to impress

David Corkery on JJ Hanrahan's guts in kicking the winner after a worrying display
Analysis: Munster grabbed a vital win but fringe players failed to impress

Thomas Ahern of Munster wins possession of a line-out. Picture: Roberto Bregani/Sportsfile

IF a cat has nine lives, then Munster must have 10.

I fully realise that professional sport is all about winning but there has to be a point where the actual performance comes in for scrutiny. There's a strong argument for this debate to take place, despite Munster’s miraculous escape in Italy on Saturday.

With only 12 minutes elapsed on the matchday clock Munster had two tries and it was looking as if the four-try bonus point would be achieved well before the half-time break.

Shortly after Niall Scannell waltzed over for the second try, Benetton were reduced to 14 players as front row forward Marco Riccioni was shown a yellow card. At this point, everyone was expecting for the floodgates to open and for Munster to rack up a feast of tries on their way to a facile victory.

Munster's Niall Scannell celebrates after scoring a try with Josh Wycherley. Picture: INPHO/Elena Barbini
Munster's Niall Scannell celebrates after scoring a try with Josh Wycherley. Picture: INPHO/Elena Barbini

Oh boy, was everyone in for a big surprise!

At this point, I still can’t work out if it was the hosts that decided to wake up or if it was Munster who decided to go to sleep. Whatever it was, Munster can thank their lucky stars that Benetton did not have the required rugby intelligence in knowing how to close out a one-point advantage.

Did I feel sorry for Benetton? Absolutely not.

Just like all the other teams in the Guinness Pro 14, Benetton are a professional outfit. Just because they have now lost 10 games on the bounce, why should we feel compassion for a team who doesn’t have the basic fundamental ability to hold onto a winning scoreline with the clock showing red.

Let there be little doubt about it that when the Italians decided that they would eventually start engaging with Munster, they were by far the more skilful and adventurous team. Were it not for two or three last-gasp passes not reaching their intended targets, they would have won the game at a canter.

The loss of the big ball-carrying number eight Toa Halafihi with 30 minutes remaining did impact on how the Italians managed their possession, but collectively they had more than enough opportunities to record their first victory of the campaign. They can only blame themselves for choking.

Munster's Darren Sweetnam competes for possession with Jayden Hayward of Benetton. Picture: INPHO/Elena Barbini
Munster's Darren Sweetnam competes for possession with Jayden Hayward of Benetton. Picture: INPHO/Elena Barbini

I can only imagine just how despondent the Benetton dressing room would have been in the moments after. We’ve all been there and it is now how they manage their disappointment will determine how the remainder of their season pans out.

Just like Munster, Benetton were missing a vast amount of their international players because of the impending Six Nations and you would have to say it was their so-called B players that impressed the most.

This is always the time of the season when I really enjoy watching games because the youth are given the opportunity to show what they can offer. On this occasion, I was really disappointed by how the lesser-known names in the Munster camp didn’t grab their opportunity and make their coaches life that little bit more problematic when they have a full deck to select from.

For as long as I’ve been playing the game, I’ve had to listen to players offer up excuses as to why they never made the breakthrough and by far the most regularly offered reason was that they were never given an opportunity.

This tie would have offered a magnificent chance for players like Ben Healy, Dan Goggin, Nick McCarthy, Fineen and Josh Wycherley to nail their colours to the mast and force Johann van Graan and his fellow coaches to seriously consider them for the big games.

Ben Healy. Picture: Roberto Bregani/Sportsfile
Ben Healy. Picture: Roberto Bregani/Sportsfile

It was also an opening for Niall and Rory Scannell to let Andy Farrell know that they are still capable of gracing the international stage should their services be required. 

While all the above players didn’t do a whole pile wrong, they certainly didn’t do anything that would make you look at the team sheet and take note of their names.

For me, there were only three players that stood front and centre on this occasion and they were Mike Haley at full-back, wing-forward Chris Cloete and substitute fly-half JJ Hanrahan.

Apart from Haley engaging in a good few bouts of boring kick-tennis, he was the only one who opted to have a cut and look at different ways of breaking through Benetton's first-line defence.

Cloete was incredible when it came to slowing down the hosts' ball at the breakdown and showed time and time again that he is not afraid to put his body on the line. 

With Hanrahan, my admiration comes for a different perspective completely.

For a player who was scapegoated and wrongfully singled out to shoulder the blame for his side’s loss to Leinster two weeks ago, I just thought it took incredible courage for him to put himself in the firing line once more.

If he missed the drop goal on this occasion and Munster lost, I can guarantee you that he would have been blamed again. I just hope that people on this occasion appreciate just how brave he was.

This rather shallow victory for Munster will have raised far more questions than it answered and maybe, just maybe a loss would have set the correct alarm bells ringing.

Munster have done well this season, but unless they learn how to become totally ruthless and dispense of second-string opponents like a lion would devour injured prey their trophy cabinet will remain empty.

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