Munster still in transition as Metro pull away
Racing Metro 22 Munster 17:AS LEARNING curves go for Rob Penney’s youthful side, this one could prove costly.
Munster left the Stade de France muddied and dejected on Saturday, struggling to digest how they got only a losing bonus point against Racing Métro and not the victory their early endeavour had warranted.
Racing outhalf Olly Barkley, making his first start since moving from Bath, condemned Munster to defeat in Paris, an outcome few would have predicted after the first half hour.
After Ronan O’Gara had passed the 1,300-point mark in Heineken Cup rugby at a quarter-full stadium, Munster were in total control when flanker Seán Dougall marked his debut in the competition with a 15th-minute try from a well-worked lineout.
The visitors dominated the opening exchanges to such an extent that Racing struggled to get any forward momentum. Even when they got a lineout deep in Munster territory after 24 minutes, a combination of Dave Kilcoyne, BJ Botha and Conor Murray soon had the home side scrambling back to their own try line. Four Munstermen then sacked Barkley behind his own posts.
That sequence epitomised the hunger that Munster showed early on and it should have been rewarded. But Paul OConnell, tasting his first competitive action since May, failed to touch the ball down cleanly from the scrum that followed.
Penney felt that moment proved decisive.
“There was a scrum penalty not long after that where we’d been dominating at scrum time and for some reason there was a penalty given for a scrum offence, which we’re a bit dumbfounded by,” he said.
“On the back of that they got into our half and we tried to run a ball that probably wasn’t appropriate to run and they kicked through and got a try . . .
“So it was a 14-point turnaround at that stage.”
Indeed, instead of being 17-3 down, Racing were suddenly level at 10-10 after 32 minutes. O’Gara’s low pass was spilled by Doug Howlett and when Ian Keatley was unable to recover, Maxime Machenaud hacked the ball clear and was awarded a try despite his sloppy touchdown.
With six players making their first Heineken Cup starts, Munster needed experienced leaders at that point. But just seconds later O’Gara limped off with a hamstring injury, giving the French club another timely boost.
“Ronan O’Gara is one of those players that has a big psychological impact on a team,” Racing head coach Gonzalo Quesada said afterwards. “But that can work both ways.
“With his kicking game he consistently pushed us back into our half,” Machenaud added. “I had the impression that the Munster players took a blow to the head when O’Gara left the field.”
And yet Munster still should have won. They trailed by three at half-time and 16-10 when Barkley landed another huge kick early in the second period.
The visitors were forced to chase the game in a downpour – the state of the pitch not helped by the France-Japan football friendly played there the night before.
With eight minutes left it looked like they had done enough though, after Simon Zebo brilliantly glided through a hole in the Racing defence.
But three minutes later, Murray decided to run the ball from his own 22, was swallowed up and was penalised.
Barkley, who admitted that Racing were surprised by how often Munster played out of their own third late on, made him pay.
A further penalty from Mirco Bergamasco added to the frustration.
“We needed to batten down the hatches a bit there,” O’Connell said of the last 10 minutes.
“You saw once we scored our try, they had to play the rugby. If we’d kept them down there and made them play like we had to do at times, there probably was opportunities for us . . . But we didn’t do that and it’s a lesson learned.”
Penney conceded that decision-making was an issue, saying it was “unbelievable” they did not kick at certain times. But asked whether Munster could have been more pragmatic overall, he was keen to stress that space and not width is crucial to their approach.
“I think the key thing is that we’ve just got to get more ruthless at nailing the opportunities when they appear and also not being so reckless when the opportunity is for us to put the ball into space.
“It’s not always about moving the ball into space by hand and we’ve got to be able to identify space in behind and put the ball there by foot as well when it’s appropriate.”
The New Zealander accepted that it could now be difficult for Munster to qualify from their pool.
“This isn’t the Munster team of old,” he said. “There’s a lot of young blokes out there giving their heart and souls for this red jersey and they’re going through some massive learning.
“But there’s going to be some rocky roads, as I’ve said many times. Today’s just another bump on that rocky road.”
SCORING SEQUENCE: 9 mins: O’Gara pen 0-3; 15: Dougall try, O’Gara con 0-10; 19: Barkley pen 3-10; 32: Machenaud try, Barkley con 10-10; 39: Barkley pen 13-10 (half time: 13-10); 51: Barkley pen 16-10; 72: Zebo try, Keatley con 16-17; 77: Barkley pen 19-17; 80: Bergamasco pen 22-17.
RACING METRO 92: B Fall; J Jane, M Bergamasco, J-M Hernandez, J Saubade; O Barkley, M Machenaud; A Lo Cicero, D Szarzewski, L Ducalcon, K Ghezal, F Van der Merwe, A Battut, J Cronje (capt), S Matadigo. Replacements: B Sa for Ducalcon (56 mins), B Le Roux for Matadigo, F Metz for Van der Merwe (both 61 mins), V Vakatawa for Fall, E Ben Arous for Lo Cicero (both 67 mins), T Bianchin for Szarzewski (70 mins), C Gerondeau for Battut (78 mins)
MUNSTER: I Keatley; D Howlett (capt), C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; R O’Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Varley, B Botha, B Holland, P O’Connell, D Ryan, S Dougall, P OMahony. Replacements: D Hurley for OGara (34 mins), M Sherry for Varley (55 mins), Dave O’Callaghan for O’Connell (64 mins), P Butler for Dougall, M Barnes for Downey, M Horan for Kilcoyne (all 73 mins.
Referee: Greg Garner (England)