Munster - what's gone wrong?

Halfway there and the interim report might read something like this: Ulster - haven't quite fulfilled the promise of a bright…

Halfway there and the interim report might read something like this: Ulster - haven't quite fulfilled the promise of a bright start but progressing well and still in pole position.

Leinster - lacking pre-championship matches but have recovered well and are now arguably the form side. Connacht - similar slow start, but durable, fit, with good unified squad; if they could start games the way they finish them they'd be a helluva side. Munster - what's gone wrong?

It is true that someone has to prop up the table and with Connacht's emergence as a genuine force it was always possible that it could be one of the more traditional powers.

However, not only is it somewhat surprising that Munster are now filling that role, but they deserve to be as well. In short, they haven't really played yet. And this, after all, is the squad that draws from a pool containing the top three sides in the AIL first division last season, and from a base of clubs that have won the AIL since its inception eight years ago.

The most popularly held theory is that Munster still haven't mastered the difficulties presented by being the only bi-located province. It has probably contributed to them not always transferring club supremacy into interpro supremacy. Even the 1979 conquerors of the All Blacks lost all three interpros.

At a most prosaic level, it requires them to train in both Cork and Limerick, thereby creating the additional problem of travelling which other provinces don't have.

To reduce this, Munster sometimes split their sessions into two camps on Mondays and Wednesdays, then bring the entire squad together on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But this is not ideal.

This will always remain a problem until the bull is grabbed by the horns. The story goes that Andy Leslie had intended to move Munster lock, stock and barrel to Limerick but this would have been unacceptable and probably always will be.

Politics also decrees that they must divide home matches as well, so what constitutes a home match for some is not necessarily so for others. Munster would be better served playing all their home matches at Thomond Park, certainly for the European Cup, in which they have never lost a match in Limerick.

Mention, for example, last season's home defeat to Cardiff in Musgrave Park and most Limerick players are quick to correct you: "that was an away match."

However, this has not been a factor, per se, in the interpro campaign thus far as Munster have played only one match in Limerick. That too, was in Dooradoyle, and there's no doubt that Munster are suffering for not playing in their traditional Thomond fortress.

To what degree the Limerick/Cork factor affects Munster team selections is also a moot point. One imagines, in this professional era, less and less so, and perhaps not at all. But it only requires players to think it and it gains a currency.

It's interesting to note that only eight of last Friday's beaten Munster XV in Ravenhill came from Limerick clubs. The other seven were all Cork Constitution players.

One wonders what Young Munster men privately thought of Jerry Murray being selected ahead of Ger Earls, who hasn't even been semi-contracted. Or Garryowen men at the thought of Brian O'Meara and Ronan O'Gara being preferred as a half-back combination to Tom Tierney and Killian Keane (or Barry Everitt).

By all accounts, there is no disharmony in the camp, or no Limerick-Cork playing divide. But there's always the potential for privately held suspicions. Buccaneers have a bit of a chip on their shoulder about perceived Galwegians' bias, but it helps that Glenn Ross is an `outsider'. There's no such talk in Ulster, or in Leinster, where Mike Ruddock is a no-strings-attached Welshmen and all the players are drawn from Dublin. The other three also have one distinct home which is unaffiliated to any club side.

Furthermore, only two of last Friday's Limerick nine came from Shannon, namely Mick Galwey and Anthony Foley. So suddenly, Shannon's four-in-a-row counts for virtually nothing.

It hasn't helped that Shannon's and perhaps Munster's most influential back, Rhys Ellison, has been sidelined for two months with an ankle injury.

Suddenly there are gaps - Pat Duignan carving through to put Willie Ruane over, ditto Brian Carey for Kevin Nowlan's try and an untouched Jonathan Bell surge before Murtagh Rea's try - where before there were none. Then, on top of the injured Alan Quinlan, another Shannon man was taken out of the equation on Friday and whose absence will surely have made Munster's hearts even fonder of Eddie Halvey. He may not have fulfilled his vast talent as an openside flanker, but Halvey has a massive presence.

HE IS also one of their few players who can turn a game in an instant. And there's no way Ulster would have enjoyed such a free, uncontested ride in the line-out had he been there, aside from giving Munster lineout options.

Instead they threw mostly to Mick Galwey at the front and sometimes to impressive 19-year-old debutant Donnacha O'Callaghan.

With the Shannon dartsman, Mark McDermott, also omitted, it meant that the Shannon line-out - a masterful exploitation of limited resources - was also made redundant.

Another demoted Shannon man was John Lacey, probably the best finisher in the province. Scorer of four tries in last year's European Cup - a strike rate bettered by no other Irish player and equalled only by John McWeeney. Lacey scored another seven tries in nine starts for Shannon, a hat-trick on his seasonal debut against Llanelli, and another against Connacht; he was dropped after missing his one chance against Leinster.

Take Lacey, Ellison and Halvey out of the equation, and suddenly Munster look a little short of match-winners. Anthony Foley might normally fall into that category, but no less than Mick Galwey, apparently playing with a back injury, or Peter Clohessy, some way short of match fitness. One couldn't fault any of them for effort or desire last Friday, although you could question their discipline. Nor could you spot a recognisable shape or pattern to their play. Everything seemed off the cuff, which is not the Limerick way and may also show that what's good for the AIL may not apply further up the representative ladder.

Now, having started with the same XV in the wins over Llanelli and Connacht, Munster have used 25 players in their last three games against Llanelli, Edinburgh Reivers and Ulster - and they seem even further away from their first-choice XV.

Back to basics? It will be fascinating to see what team will be picked for their joust with Connacht on Saturday in Dooradoyle. And even more fascinating to see how they play.