Away defeat to Metro may come back to haunt Munster
To go toe-to-toe in back-to-back matches with the heavyweight Saracens’ bruisers was no mean feat, and Munster emerged with an identical head-to-head record over the two games. It’s just that the opening day defeat away to Racing Metro means the advantage in their group lies with Saracens.
It was always going to be a tough ask to complete a double over Mark McCall’s team, especially as Steve Borthwick and co were always likely to rediscover the accuracy which had made theirs the best lineout in the competition over the first couple of rounds until the difficulties they experienced in the furnace of Thomond Park.
Munster’s scrum was also denied the presence of David Kilcoyne, and although Wian du Preez is an experienced replacement, ultimately it was the impact of Saracens’ frontrow replacements, Mako Vunipola and John Smit, which enabled their scrum to turn the screw.
“They are all quality players and they really played well when they came on and made a good impact. We knew they had it,” said Du Preez of Vunipola and Smit. “We knew from Monday they were going to work on it (their set-piece) and they would come back fighting. Obviously they will bring it up to scratch and we knew it.
“It was very tough,” admitted Du Preez when comparing it to Rabo PRO12 matches. “It was a fast match. They have electrifying backs in the back line, a good pack and good reserves as well.”
After the battering of the last two weekends, none of the Irish provinces will now be relishing back-to-back derbies, but Munster are not liable to face such a demanding fortnight for a while, and after Connacht (away) and Ulster (home) they host Cardiff in the new year before the two Heineken Cup finales away to Edinburgh and at home to Racing Metro.
Were they to win those, with a bonus point or better still two, their chances of progressing would increase hugely.
“Every game is a must-win now from our point of view, in the next two matches,” said Du Preez. “They are big, massive matches. There are still opportunities for us (to qualify) in the next two matches.”
Saracens are in pole position although if Racing don’t beat Saracens in Nantes in round five, Munster have every chance of reaching the quarter-finals on 20 or, especially, 21 points.
Both Conor Murray and Ronan O’Gara will have reproached themselves for some of their aberrations in the Stade de France mudbath, but no blame can be attached to either in Vicarage Road on Sunday, least of all O’Gara for that missed drop goal and missed penalty to level matters while Saracens were down to 14 men. He cannot pull rabbits out of the hat every time.
There seems to be a change-for-change-sake mood toward bringing one of the younger out-halves coming through, most obviously Paddy Jackson, to the exclusion of O’Gara for the forthcoming Six Nations. But little about the events of last weekend support that view. Besides caps shouldn’t be handed out like confetti at a wedding. They should be earned. And as of yet, no one has earned the right to displace O’Gara. Aside from his tactical kicking, there were still some sublime examples of his skills’ set, not least his banana kick to touch and the perfectly weighted chip ahead for Simon Zebo in response to Saracens’ blitz defence, and they’ll miss him terribly when he eventually retires.
But Munster coped admirably without Paul O’Connell over the last two weekends, and whether or not they’ll win the Heineken Cup again any time soon, with a core group of young players like Zebo, Earls, Murray, David Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry, Dave O’Callaghan and Peter O’Mahony, there is encouragement aplenty there.