Infuriating Munster's timing is just right

 

They can be maddeningly, infuriatingly frustrating, and when they put it together like they did in the first 30 minutes or so last Friday night, in a way it only makes Munster more maddening.

However, to know them is to curse them, for as one of their players, smiling smugly afterwards, explained: "Once there's trophies around, we'll be there."

Ever the minimalists, they had timed their run to perfection; putting together a three-game winning sequence in the second half of the Guinness Interpro championship to regain the title they won two seasons ago. Accordingly, another one of their Shannon number, had backed them at 11 to 2 at the half-way point.

Having tipped them at the outset, it was a surprise to encounter a little bit of the old Munster paranoia afterwards, as if I was `agin' them. It's only because we knew Munster were capable of so much more that they perhaps attracted more critical attention than anyone else.

Privately, perhaps even the Munster brains trust will concede that they made a few mistakes along the way themselves.

Specifically, they seemed to require an inordinately long time to find their favoured personnel. Even allowing for injuries, they still used more players, 31, in their six games than anyone else.

There's a striking comparison to be made between the Munster team which lost their third game at Ulster and the team that played against Leinster - the former had two Shannon players, the latter nine.

Restoring Alan Quinlan the following week for his try-scoring seasonal debut against Connacht was possibly the single most influential Munster selection, along with the re-instatement of Mark McDermott and John Hayes, and the superior `Shannon' line-out.

Although Dominic Crotty had previously shown signs of a revival in confidence, there's also little doubt that the emergence of Brian Roche gave Munster a more composed and aware counter-attacking option.

Still, nothing much was happening behind the scrum but the unearthing of Barry Everitt enabled Munster to start playing the quicker tempo game that some thought was anathema to the province, but which they had been striving to achieve and had heretofore only shown in snatches.

In the heel of the hunt it still took them a dozen games to produce what Declan Kidney described as their best sustained rugby of the season, and even with that it only lasted 30 minutes or so. Immediately grasping his team's habit of occasionally rising to the occasion (how on earth could the performance against Neath a week before equate with last Friday's offering?) Kidney asserted that the acid test will be Munster's ability to do it again next Saturday against Perpignan.

The records will admittedly show that they scored less tries, 11, than anyone else, Ulster and Leinster had 14 apiece while Connacht scored a dozen. But they also conceded half the tries, 7, anyone else did - Ulster leaking 14, and Connacht and Leinster 15 apiece.

Ulster began the best, suffered a dip in confidence and form, but recovered and finished well. By dint of having a smaller pool of personnel, they were hurt more than most by injuries to key players such as Mark McCall. Ditto Connacht, (who possibly deserved a little bit more) and specifically Conor McGuinness and then Eric Elwood.

For Leinster, having led after four rounds thanks to their away double over Munster and Ulster, the finale must have been a crushing anticlimax. To miss out on next season's European Cup would be a desperate set-back for Mike Ruddock and the squad, not to mention the progressive Branch officials who have made the Donnybrook Experience what it is.

On the pitch, Leinster at times hit heights arguably beyond other teams, but when the going got tough they just didn't seem to have enough men who could take each other or the game by the scruff of the neck - witness their win that got away in Galway. Men like Andy Ward, or Galwey, Clohessy and the Shannon back-row for Munster.

There was also a school of thought in Leinster circles that perhaps Ruddock could have waved his hat at the Stade Francais away game two Saturdays ago to give vital men a breather. Given their preparations and performance against Munster were seriously affected by injuries to Gabriel Fulcher and Victor Costello, that school of thought will remain unchanged, although it would have been a hard thing for Ruddock to stand over if Stade had run up 100 points as a result.

Herein lies the rub, for the provincial coaches are under remorseless pressure and some of the selections betray this.

Although there's plenty of under-age talent coming through Munster and Leinster particularly, few of them are being given their head, and Warren Gatland wasn't shy about airing his frustration over this in a weekend interview with the Sunday Independent.

Leinster have problem positions at out-half and openside flanker, and who knows what might have happened had they given Andy Dunne (now being mooted for the Begles game on Saturday) or Mark McHugh a run-out in the earlier games, say Edinburgh Reivers.

Those that have broken through, such as Mick O'Driscoll and Everitt in Munster, have only tended to get their chances in the light of injuries to others. Indeed, it's worth recalling that Munster had been scouring the southern hemisphere for a lock and had they been successful, where would O'Driscoll be now? In mitigation of the provincial coaches, chances outside of competitive games have been scarce.

At least though, the doubling of the number of matches has resulted in a greater test of squads' strength in depth, with, as predicted, all four provinces using more players than they did last season - Munster using 31 compared to 21 last season, Leinster 27 as opposed to 24, Ulster using 28 compared to 21 and Connacht 27 as against 22 last season.

By any criteria, those in favour of the home-and-away series, with a Super 12 bonus points scoring system, can feel vindicated. The proof was in the pudding - a record aggregate of 13-14,000 at Friday night's two games, and an increase in the number of tries from 15 last season (at an average of 2.5 per game) to 51 this season (an average of 4.25).

This should serve as a timely reminder to the ostriches amongst us who derided this break from tradition, for here was proof again that we should never be hostages to tradition.

So why then, have the IRFU decided not to introduce the bonus points scoring system for this season's All-Ireland League? Given the increased points possibilities, it would spread the competitive element right throughout the divisions.