There were numerous disappointing aspects to Munster’s performance in Bordeaux at the weekend: they couldn’t handle Racing 92 for the first 30 minutes, they squandered several try-scoring opportunities that could have won them the game, their attacking play was one-dimensional and ineffective until Racing tired, and apart from Conor Murray and CJ Stander, their entire matchday squad played poorly.
That’s probably an unfair assessment of a group of players who tried their best and did well to claw their way back to make the scoreline close in the end, but if they want to push on from the level that they are at, these are the hard truths that they will have to face. The Munster team who dominated Europe from 2006-2008 had to endure the same self-criticism for years before they won a trophy, and if the path to winning this tournament was easy, everyone would be able to do it.
Three of the fundamentals of rugby union are passing, tackling and set-pieces, and while doing these things with minimal errors doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to win (the other team could be faster or stronger on the day, they could get a few lucky bounces, or they could be smarter tactically), doing one (or all) of them badly means that your chances of finishing the game on the right side of the scoreboard are slim.
Munster were below par in all three on Sunday and it seemed like whenever they got into a decent attacking position, someone threw a wayward pass that put them in a fight to retain possession:
In these examples, Munster were under pressure from the Racing defence, but the ability to pass the ball anywhere near the intended target deserted Sam Arnold and Ian Keatley. Both players are usually reliable in terms of their handling, but when they made mistakes like these, you got that gut feeling that it wasn’t going to be Munster’s day.
The sporting cliché of ‘the opposition are only as good as you let them be’ very much applies to Racing’s annihilation of Munster in the first 30 minutes. Yes, they have devastating pace in their back line with players like Virimi Vakatawa, Marc Andreu, Teddy Thomas and Joe Rokocoko, but Munster made them look world class by missing first-up tackles that they would normally make in their sleep:
These moments handed Racing momentum and you could see their players getting a surge of energy from slipping out of the grasp of would-be tacklers, and to make matters worse, the volume of the Racing support rose every time one of their players beat a defender. There’s nothing quite like playing a French team on their soil when the crowd are on your back, and coupled with the stifling heat and giving up an enormous lead, the pressure Munster felt in that first half-hour must have been unbearable.
As draining as the above errors were for Munster, their blown lineouts were even more damaging. This is supposed to be an area of strength for Munster; Niall Scannell has an excellent success rate with his darts, Billy Holland, despite not being the tallest, has incredible technical nous, and Jean Kleyn is a towering front jumper. That’s all before you get to Peter O’Mahony’s prowess in this phase of play both sides of the ball, but Munster’s lineout didn’t function at crucial junctures due to a combination of competition in the air from the impressive Yannick Nyanga and overthrowing from Niall Scannell:
Lineout losses are a coach-killer, especially when they are inside the opposition red zone, and when they start happening early on, a pattern tends to emerge where they remain problematic for the rest of the match. Munster did score one try off the back of a maul, but like the rest of their game, their lineout wasn’t up to scratch.
Munster’s attacking play against Racing has come under intense scrutiny, even though they scored the same amount of tries as the Paris-based side, and that’s mainly down to the fact that those scores came when the Racing defence became fractured and their players fatigued. Up until around the 55-minute mark, Racing were physical and uncharacteristically well-organised and hard-working in defence, and stopped Munster from making any sort of headway with their one-out, around the corner carries:
This type of attack works if you’re winning the collisions, but Munster’s primary ball carriers (CJ Stander, Jack O’Donoghue, Dave Kilcoyne and Jean Kleyn) struggled to get over the gain line. The definition of insanity is repeating the same act and expecting a different outcome, and when this tactic wasn’t producing results, Munster should have recognised this and altered their approach.
Maybe the idea was to tire the Racing pack out by carrying like this so that they would be out on their feet in the final quarter, but there is no benefit to getting smashed backwards. Screen passes and offloads present a different picture to the defence and catch them off-guard, as Munster found out in the second half:
If Munster had attacked like this from the outset, it could have surprised Racing and forced them to rethink their defensive strategy. They expected Munster to go into contact ahead-down and go to ground, and if Munster had freed their hands during or after contact at the start of the game instead of the end, they may have put Racing in two minds and profited from the hesitation that comes from having to react to the unexpected.
Another issue that affected Munster’s back play was the option-taking from their out-halves. Ian Keatley consistently positioned himself on the side where Racing had numbered up defensively when the ball should have gone the other way (either because of a gap in the line or a defender being out of position), and JJ Hanrahan was guilty of having a cut himself when an overlap could have been exploited if the ball was shifted on to the players outside him:
Keatley’s form has been up and down since forever, and JJ Hanrahan hasn’t slotted back into Munster as seamlessly as people had hoped. It’s harsh to single out players when the rest of their team played badly (and some of the criticism that Keatley has received has definitely been excessive), but 10 is an important position, and until Munster can develop stability there, they are going to continue to come unstuck in crunch games.
Bill Johnston might be the answer down the line, but it’s difficult to know if making a change in the meantime is a wise move. There are only so many shots that Keatley’s confidence can take, and Hanrahan has already been discarded by the province once. If Munster sign an overseas player or jettison Keatley from the staring XV for the sake of pinning their hopes on Hanrahan, one or two of the pivots could leave (or lose form completely), and that would leave the club in a worse position.
Getting Back On The Horse
Munster have experienced a lot of disruption lately (a new coaching ticket being brought in midway through the season, injuries in key areas), but after falling flat on a big occasion when their confidence had been so high following their victory over Toulon and two tough wins down in South Africa, it’s going to be a challenge to pick themselves back up.
Reviewing a loss as sickening as this one was no doubt painful for the coaches and players, but if they want to improve, they will have to acknowledge their failings and understand what they need to do right next time, and there will be a next time. This Munster team is talented enough to play in a European final, and as we saw in their second-half fightback, they have plenty of character and grit to boot.