FOR those wondering why English rugby finds itself languishing in fifth position on the world rankings, the performances from Northampton and Gloucester over the weekend provided the answer.
I fully realise Leinster seem to be operating on a very different stratosphere to everyone else so their seven-try demolition of Gloucester wasn't actually that strange. However, Northampton’s opening 40 minutes against Munster was nothing but a disgrace and they should be hanging their heads in shame rather than clapping themselves on the back for nearly earning a draw.
Maybe it’s arrogance or perhaps there might be a little bit of fear involved, but whatever it is about English teams playing in Thomond Park, the majority of them end up leaving Limerick looking like a team of amateurs.
There were passages in the opening half against a revived Munster side when it looked as if all the Northampton players, captain Lewis Ludlam excluded, were on an end-of-season jolly as they fell off tackles, failed to offer themselves as ball carriers and most notably hit rucks with the force and technique of a six-year-old. I would even go as far as to suggest that were it not for the sending-off of Jack O’Donoghue, Munster would have won this game by 40 points.
Even the contribution offered up by English and Lions international Courtney Lawes was completely irrelevant and the man looked like a completely different player after a long stint on the sidelines with concussion-related concerns.
I don't want to take anything from Munster’s performance which contained adventure at the line-out, originality in their attacking strategies, and determination in their defensive endeavours. However, Northampton really need to take a very long and hard look at their mental preparation before they arrive in Limerick again.
Leading 24-0 at half-time and with three tries locked away in the bank, you would have thought that Munster would easily be able to muster up the bonus point fourth try. With Jack O’Donoghue receiving his red card, the extra workload on his fellow players started to take its toll on their energy reserves and the visitors took control in the second half.
Two tries by Man of the Match Gavin Coombes and one by O’Donoghue, just before his departure, gave Munster a handsome lead.
In the build-up, Phil Dowson, the Northampton coach, stated he was looking forward to watching his players enjoy the atmosphere of playing in Thomond Park and how they will become better players because of the experience.
In order to win away, it is imperative that you deploy an approach that starts with and ends with the following three words: 'whatever it takes', not 'let’s go out enjoy the banter from the crowd and see what we can learn from the experience'. Playing on the road, as Munster will find out next weekend when they arrive in Toulouse, is a completely different kettle of fish. If you show even the slightest element of doubt, the opposition will very quickly pick up on it and use it as a tool to hammer you with.
With Northampton having woken up and scoring two tries within 15 minutes of the second half recommencing, you normally look to your senior and better players to steady the ship and to think that Rowntree opted to cast Joey Carbery ashore at this point, who as we all know is Ireland's number two fly-half, seems an extremely strange decision to make.
Deservingly Munster just about managed to hold onto the lead as the game came to a conclusion and they can be thankful for some very heroic tackling for this, especially from their back three.
As stated above, next week's game against Toulouse is going to be a very different experience for the Munster players and it will give us a very true reading as to how far Rowntree has departed the province from the Johann van Grann era/disaster.
If you’re a Munster fan, you cannot afford to miss this game!