Too many doubts exist to expect another miracle from Munster
Formidable Harlequins look the stronger force
Munster head coach Rob Penney’s patience has been tested by his critics. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
“If I could I would (explain it),” said the Munster coach. “It is inaccuracy. Concentration. A whole number of things. It is certainly not the skill level or ability because we have some excellent players and a very high skill level developed over a long period of time.
“We need to muscle up in the contact areas. We were beaten in defence of our ball and beaten at the breakdown of their ball.
“We really stood off them and showed an inability to make first-up tackles and we didn’t get enough squareness in the line to get people off the edges . . . it was like a training run for them at times.”
That’s not Rob Penney talking after the 51-24 defeat to Glasgow last week. It’s Tony McGahan two years ago this month after Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins flipped them in the Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final at Thomond Park.
Flicking through that Munster line-up and comparing it to the present, there is a strong argument to suggest the skill level has improved.
Granted, there’s no easy way to replace David Wallace or Denis Leamy but only a fool would challenge the progress of Tommy O’Donnell and the versatile Peter O’Mahony.
You would also take the current front five. Paul O’Connell, BJ Botha and Donnacha Ryan were missing when Harlequins outmuscled them in the contact areas.
One thing for certain about tomorrow’s renewal of acquaintances is the collisions will be fiercer. This marks the fourth anniversary of Harlequins losing at home to eventual champions Leinster in a game that became known simply as “bloodgate”.
It proved a watershed moment in the history of Harlequins, a low point when the Twickenham club sailed perilously close to oblivion. Tomorrow they return to that juncture in their quest to become a European powerhouse.
Conor O’Shea arrived soon after that black period, allied by a number of club loyalists, particularly head coach John Kingston, along with players like Mike Brown, Nick Evans, Danny Care, Ugo Monye, George Robson, Nick Easter, Chris Robshaw and, of course, Tom Williams. Brown, Care and particularly England captain Robshaw are radically different animals nowadays.
The argument that Munster always underperform the week before a return to do-or-die Heineken Cup action might provide some solace to the faithful this week, but not the players. And certainly not Rob Penney, who has clearly lost patience with the constant questioning of his brand of rugby.
His lack of tolerance comes after some over-the-top battering of the Canterbury style he was so clearly hired to impose on Munster, a club whose blueprint was so blatantly outdated until McGahan began the process of introducing a more progressive philosophy.
Penney was brought over because of his successful record in New Zealand, employing a high tempo, multi-phase game that utilises every inch of the field and demands a high skill level from all players. He will live and die by his beliefs. The problem is results won’t allow the questioning of these beliefs to die away.
The players appear to have embraced it, without being able to consistently transfer it to the field of play.
Glasgow proved they were a decent side when unluckily beaten by Leinster at the RDS a fortnight back but Munster were atrocious against them, with the concession of 51 points feeling like a new low.
The manner of defeat must have shattered confidence. They lacked one element always associated with the red jersey. The passion and commitment was missing.
Lose again today and their season is over, the first of the Penny era deemed a failure, with the exception of doing better than Leinster by escaping their Pool. (They face Leinster next weekend).
The question now is would even their best performance of the season stop the English champions at home? Connacht impressively put it up to ’Quins in Galway last October, only to be worn down by huge forwards like James Johnston, Ollie Kohn and George Robson. The backrow of Maurie Fa’asavalu, Easter and Robshaw are a punishing trio, with former All Black Nick Evans a good bet to kick his points.
For Munster to prevail, Ronan O’Gara will have to reproduce his old trick of talking the talk, as he did so entertainingly this week, and then back it up. Perhaps more importantly, O’Connell will have to have found a new level of conditioning. Too many doubts for another miracle.