WHILE Munster’s supporters are being extremely patient with the current Munster rebuild, it is hard to stomach losing games like last Monday’s 19-20 defeat to Leinster.
A similar loss in Belfast to Ulster on New Year’s Day would be very hard to take for the faithful.
The frustrating thing about the defeat to Leinster at Thomond Park is that it was a very winnable tie. Ultimately losing the 10-minute period where Leinster were reduced to fourteen men by 14-0 was the winning and losing of the game, while the five points that were left behind courtesy of kicks missed by Joey Carbery were also costly.
Munster outscored Leinster by three tries to two, which will have pleased the Munster coaches, as scoring tries has been a bit of an issue this year to date, but right now Leinster just know how to get over the line, with them winning all 12 games they have played this season.
But, as well as being a missed opportunity in terms of garnering huge confidence from beating their main domestic rivals, the defeat also did huge damage to Munster’s URC hopes. The loss was their sixth in 10 league starts.
Each defeat that Graham Rowntree’s side suffer further decreases not only Munster’s chances of qualifying for the URC play-offs, but also seriously jeopardises the prospect of achieving qualification for the Champions Cup next year. It looks as though all four of the South African franchises are in strong positions to finish ahead of Munster. Quite simply, Munster have to finish ahead of at least one of them to get into the European Cup next year. Right now, that is looking unlikely.
Therefore, this Sunday’s trip to the Kingspan Stadium takes on huge significance, as a seventh defeat in the league by January 1st is likely to leave Munster with too much to do in the latter half of the campaign.
Despite the fact that Munster would appear to be a side with extremely fragile confidence right now, It would appear to be a good time to play Ulster actually, as they have looked rather vulnerable themselves of late.
Their confidence took a right bashing after being 22-3 up against 14-man Leinster in early December only to concede 35 unanswered points on their way to losing by 38-29. This was compounded a week later when they got another rude awakening, this time in Europe, as they went down 39-0 to Sale. This trend continued into the following week, when they trailed current European champions La Rochelle 29-0 at half time, only to fight back in the second half and get two match points in a 29-36 reversal.
Last weekend, they managed to beat Connacht in Galway, but were only hanging on by the final whistle, despite leading 19-3 at the hour mark, and had a last-gasp missed Jack Carty conversion to thank for their 20-22 win.
This Ulster team can definitely be got at, but Munster need full 80-minute performance on Sunday if they are to get a huge win on the road. They certainly cannot afford periods like they had against Leinster where they ultimately lost the match.
While there were certain elements to Munster’s game, last Monday that were admirable, you can’t help but think that the balance just is not quite right either.
There have been times this season where Munster have played some of their best stuff with both Joey Carbery and Jack Crowley on the pitch at the same time, but the 10-12 experiment is not really working. A small tweak might help the team. Move Carbery to full-back, Crowley to out-half, Antoine Frisch to inside centre where he played last season for Bristol, and Shane Daly to outside centre. That makeup would give the side better balance.
The back row could do with some augmentation also. Gavin Coombes and Peter O’Mahony were probably Munster’s best operators against Leinster, and Jack O’Donoghue also had his moments, but having O’Mahony and O’Donoghue in the same back row has rarely worked for Munster in big games.
Getting John Hodnett in as an out-and-out openside, or putting Tadhg Beirne in at six would give the pack more balance, although that last option is dependent on Munster’s second row stocks becoming healthy again.