Munster get what they deserve after a sluggish show

 

Instead of looking at this in one of two ways - a point dropped or a point gained - Munster viewed Saturday's events at the Gnoll in rather more prosaic fashion. It was neither one nor the other, merely what they deserved.

That's about fair, based purely on another infuriatingly patchy Munster performance away from home. Coach Declan Kidney did point to this being the province's first-ever away point in the European Cup at the eighth attempt, and, admittedly, they are still authors of their own destiny.

In truth, they had little or no chance of overhauling Pool B pacesetters Perpignan anyway, and victory, or even a draw, on the anniversary homecoming to Thomond Park in a fortnight's time against the French side would suffice to earn them a quarter-final.

Neath could even make that and other results irrelevant by beating Padova that same afternoon.

Nonetheless, it's hard not to regard this as a point lost. As a consequence, defeat to Perpignan coupled with a Padova win in Neath (who remain a poor side) would leave Munster needing to avoid defeat in Italy on the final weekend to nail down that last eight berth.

In that scenario, Munster's failure to win Saturday's game would mean that their vastly superior points difference over Padova's would count for nothing. The Italians would know that victory would see them leapfrog Munster.

Recalling how Leinster lost to Milan last season, and given Padova extended Perpignan to a 146 win in the Stadio Plebiscito on Saturday night, that is a singularly unnerving prospect.

In other respects too, Munster's phlegmatic post-match mood was a surprise. Almost certainly, this performance will bear little or no comparison to their aforementioned Thomond homecoming or even next Friday's interpro shootout with Leinster.

All of which merely makes this latest laboured and erratic effort away from home more irritating. Yet again, they didn't do themselves justice on Euro travels, and probably never have done.

Some big names didn't play well, notably Eddie Halvey and Anthony Foley, while a few trademark hits aside, Rhys Ellison was strangely under-used.

Mentally, they lacked urgency and sharpness. Their concentration and awareness at rucks was awful, even allowing for protruding black shirts or the unpunished unwillingness of Neath tacklers to roll away.

So poor was Munster's protection of ruck ball when the ballcarrier went to ground that Neath regularly delayed or stole it, and not once did Munster string two successive rucks together in the first-half.

Thus, instead of putting away a side that Kidney admitted "were there for the taking", Munster compounded their inability to apply any continuity by missing first-up tackles and allowed Neath to put together what few sustained drives there were in an errorstrewn first-half.

Lyn Jones, Neath's coach, said Neath "tried to pick up the tempo after the break" and that they did. Munster didn't help their cause with the first of three puzzling substitutions - Brian Walsh coming on for the injured Anthony Horgan, not as a straight swap, but at full-back, with the composed Brian Roche switching to the wing.

Walsh dropped his first high ball and compounded this by missing Delme Williams in the build-up to Richard Francis' try which made it 11-6.

Nearing the hour, Barry Everitt's huge touch kick established the foothold for the impish and impressive Peter Stringer to probe the blind side for a welltaken try.

Alan Quinlan had been involved twice, first supporting Ellison's sprint up the touchline, and then setting up the final ruck.

Tigerish close-in with a number of turnover tackles and drives, Quinlan had been the pick of the Munster pack along with the omnipresent Peter Clohessy and Mick Galwey, which made the flanker's substitution soon after staggering.

As tempers frayed, still the force was with Munster, until Mark McDermott and Mick O'Driscoll set up the attacking ruck from which Galwey forcefully pinpointed a gap in the black line for his fifth try in four games and fourth in this competition.

However, you suspected referee Chuck Muir would have the final say. He had correctly given the first five penalties to Munster, but even then you sensed the irate Gnoll loyalists would get to him.

Thereafter, the penalty count was about 19-7 for Neath, prompting claims of "home-town refereeing" from Munster. Barging and pulling had gone unnoticed in the line-outs, as had the tackler killing or stealing ruck ball while on the ground. Sure enough, at the death, Muir gave Neath five successive penalties in quick succession before Patrick Horgan tapped, and appeared to be hauled down short by Stringer and others. The try was awarded.

"I thought the referee had a very good game," said the smiling Jones, before admitting that "we got out of jail".

Scoring sequence: 4 mins: Keane pen, 0-3; 20: McCarthy pen, 3-3; 31: McCarthy pen, 6-3; 39: Keane pen, 6-6; 45: Francis try, 11-6; 59: Stringer 11-11; 75: Galwey try, Keane con, 1118; 81: Horgan try, Richards con, 18-18.

NEATH: I Jones; D Tiueti, G Evans, T Davies, D Williams; M McCarthy, P Horgan; D Jones, M Davies, D Penisini, M Turner, A Jackson, S Eggar, S van Rensburg, B Sinkinson. Replace- ments: R Francis for Sinkinson (14 mins), L Gerrard for D Jones (52 mins), D Jones for Penisini (67 mins), L Richards for McCarthy (73 mins), S Martin for Eggar (73 mins), T Billups for M Davies (76 mins).

MUNSTER: B Roche; J Kelly, K Keane, R Ellison, A Horgan; B Everitt, P Stringer; P Clohessy, M McDermott, J Hayes, M Galwey (capt), M O'Driscoll, A Quinlan, A Foley, E Halvey. Replacements: B Walsh for Horgan (half-time), D Wallace for Quinlan (67 mins), M Lynch for Everitt (71 mins).

Referee: C Muir (Scotland).

Heineken have confirmed their withdrawal as sponsors of the European Cup and blamed the absence of top English clubs from this year's competition for their decision. The brewers have lent their name to the tournament, and its second tier competition, the European Shield, for the last four years and have invested over £10 million in the game.

But Jeremy Wilton, head of sponsorship for Heineken's parent company Whitbread, blamed the inability of competition organisers European Rugby Cup (ERC) to prevent the English clubs' boycott for their withdrawal.

"ERC has been unable to secure the participation of the top English clubs, the two top Welsh clubs and a UK broadcaster which we believe devalues the competition," he said.

"Top level rugby in Europe is exactly where Heineken wishes to be and I hope that we can become involved again in the future."