Yes, Munster were great, but Harlequins played right into their hands

Conor O’Shea’s side fell into a cunning trap

 Rob Penney speaks to Peter O’Mahony prior to kickoff against Harlequins. The Munster coach got so much right on the day.  Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images

Rob Penney speaks to Peter O’Mahony prior to kickoff against Harlequins. The Munster coach got so much right on the day. Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images


Doctors differ and patients die but when coaches or the executives that appoint them do it can be far worse. Last week the focus was on the three big matches of the weekend where I noted Chris Ashton could bring the key difference in Twickenham and how there were many reasons to be sceptical for Munster.

Disappointingly, Ulster didn’t land a punch but in highlighting what Exeter and Gloucester achieved over Harlequins in recent weeks style was key to Munster’s progression. Consequently, Conor O’Shea would struggle to predict Munster’s style and what a surprise he faced.

What would that be and how would one coach beat the other? He and his team stayed true to their Premiership form, Munster got back to theirs and ’Quins in trying to play rugby inside their own 22 fell into a huge trap.

They wanted to fire all their bullets. Munster well aware of ’Quins’ style lapped it up. Clearly O’Shea is the driver behind Quins and their marvellous rehabilitation over recent seasons. But why did they play rugby against Munster deep inside their own half? What did he expect James Downey to do to his fullback, Mike Brown, as he danced around his own 22?

Meantime last Friday’s question remains: what is Rob Penney’s style and how do old winning Munster values meet it? I watched Paul O’Connell for the entire opening 10 minutes and noted how his understandable rustiness had his timing off ever so slightly. But then he grew and grew to gigantic proportions, while Quins ebbed away out of the fixture.

Sea change
Can one man bring such a sea change? Yes and no. O’Connell was extraordinary in everything he did and stood looking into the abyss as Quins crumbled. Quins’ game plan was fixed, which was a grave error and failure to understand where Munster are at present.

Add to that how fatigued O’Shea’s men appeared. Chris Robshaw, the ultimate battler, looked exhausted.

Munster had their homework done and brilliantly adapted to the evolving environment, such as Jerome Garces’ scrum interpretations, and more power to David Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry, BJ Botha and Munster scrum coach Paul McCarthy in turning an early weakness into a powerful strength.

Ulster and Quins struggled to adapt.

Mark Anscombe left Paddy Jackson at 10 and Ruan Pienaar at nine, with the electric Paul Marshall on the bench.

They could have attacked the gain line and created valuable inertia for struggling team-mates.

O’Shea’s Quins should have played miles down the pitch, forcing Munster to play. What opinion had he of Munster’s backline attacking play? How many breakdown penalties did Quins concede within kicking range? – brilliant Munster breakdown, brutal Quins geography.

These tactical decisions influence outcomes massively. Clearly it is easier in the stand to emotionally detach and spot evolving trends. Either way, the modern coach must be blessed with infinitely more skills than those of yore.

The hunt for a new Ireland coach continues and with it the need to satisfy us all. Pre-professionalism, Irish players were well-versed in losing, at provincial and national levels.

Yes, there were Triple Crowns and Championships and the odd provincial victory over touring sides but in the main, the players’ expectations were low. But the real teachers, the coaches, added to the general malaise.

Coaching in Ireland was generally poor, hence the influx of foreigners. At national level, coaching was a new concept; the first Ireland coach was not appointed until 1969. Ireland rarely winning was an accepted norm.

We are top Wooden Spooners, on 36, all of them predating the Six Nations format.

The 2013 player is a vastly different animal, one that has grown accustomed to winning and is very hungry for more (Munster in the Stoop). They have won Grand Slam, Triple Crowns and Heineken Cups and more importantly, know exactly how to lose.

Winning culture
The modern player coming out of the academies has dreamt of winning trophies and the culture they step in to is a winning one. Hence, the pressure on the modern coach is vastly more than in the sleepy days of yore.

Not many coaches can stay ahead on the modern player rugby curve while also running the organisation, driving policy and standards in an environment that demands excellence and results. Last weekend proved how even highly-rated coaches can err in judgment. In essence, the modern player is extraordinarily selfish in his need for personal and team success and will do almost anything to achieve it. Why do players play when clearly concussed or injured? The coach must be capable of meeting this need.

The board tasked with the next appointment must also understand players will not abide a coach who can’t maximise their ability and hunger for victory.

To this end I cautiously applaud the addition of a “consultant”. However, he or she remains a mythical figure and one that can justify the continuation of a non-executive amateur board in power.

Once diluted, some degree of responsibility can be passed on to the consultant. Does the consultant forward candidates to the board for selection? Does the candidate sit in on the board with no vote or a single vote? If it doesn’t work out can the non-executives blame the consultant?
PS. Yet another player hands in his musket; Marcus Horan’s incredible journey ends this season. His first senior competitive Munster cap was in the 1999 Interpro against Leinster, the day I got my first one in blue.

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