There was an underlying message in the Leinster team chosen to face Munster in the United Rugby Championship at Thomond Park at the weekend. It read: “While this is an important match this isn’t the strongest team that we can field even allowing for injury and the result won’t define our season, but it might just be a harbinger of what yours holds.”
It wasn't subliminal, the thought process evident in the selection even allowing for the absence of injured starters Jordan Larmour, Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher, James Ryan, Ryan Baird and a decision to rest Johnny Sexton.
Leo Cullen focused on how to best manage his squad for the upcoming block of games that includes a couple of Heineken Champions Cup fixtures and a URC trip to South Africa.
Injuries weren't just Leinster's prerogative, Munster too were missing several starters in Mike Haley, Andrew Conway, Simon Zebo, Dave Kilcoyne and Jean Kleyn, but their ability to fill in the gaps was nowhere near as convincing. Why Jack O'Donoghue, arguably their best player this season, did not tog out having not been listed as unavailable is hard to fathom.
At the start of a season coaches invariably speak about the importance of the squad in trying to win trophies and for those teams that do manage to obtain silverware, it is very much a cast of thousands; well, these days in rugby maybe 50 to 60 players.
In practical terms it is harder than it sounds because it requires a coach to refrain from leaning too heavily on his frontline players and instead share the load, as well as judgement that incorporates form, fitness and fixtures, to highlight some variables.
Leinster’s tight five for Thomond Park and a willingness to leave Sexton in the stands illustrated that they have their sights set on more than one prize this season, regardless of the optics it suggested.
Munster then turned to the bench and, while it did provide energy and dynamism, the tangible reward on the scoreboard was paltry
Munster’s need was always greater going into this game given the points tally in the URC table and that should have been reflected in the performance from the home side. They should have been chewing the dressing room door down to get at Leinster but instead it was only when the game was no longer a contest that some of the Munster bench took the fight to the visitors.
Leinster were firmly in the ascendancy in Limerick and that should grate and not just with the supporters. The psychological impact of the defeat will be more accurately gauged later in the season.
Munster relied on individual flourishes rather than a coherent collective with a sharp edge. The home side were competitive but never in control and despite being within touching distance, 14-12 down at the interval, I thought Leinster had only briefly found third gear in those 40 minutes and their scope for improvement was so much greater.
It panned out that way. Leinster outscored their hosts by four tries to one, two coming as part of a points’ deluge after the interval that took Cullen’s side 17 points clear. Munster then turned to the bench and, while it did provide energy and dynamism, the tangible reward on the scoreboard was paltry.
They had plenty of possession but once they went over five phases the home side lost their attacking shape and became quite predictable in orientation. There was very little creativity or subtlety in the build-up to Damian de Allende’s try but it did at least show a direction Munster need to go in the coming weeks.
Craig Casey’s quick tap helped to condense the Leinster defence around the ruck and then Ben Healy’s decision to sweep late to one side and a nicely timed flat pass allowed de Allende to flop over from close range; sharp thinking to go with a swift execution.
It might have been the catalyst for a late charge from the home side but instead they spent the next eight minutes trying to duck and dive, corralled in their own half. During that period there were opportunities for Munster to relieve the pressure with a couple of turnovers, but they lacked the cohesion and creativity to maximise the possession.
They alternate between being very narrow and seeking contact without much footwork to flinging the ball to the edges without committing defenders en route. Peter O’Mahony is playing some of his best rugby in the last few months but I can’t help but feel that when your captain is reduced to waiting in the wider channels for a ball and when it eventually comes, he needs to chip it through, something isn’t firing correctly.
Munster suffer from a self-perpetuating issue. They manufacture enough quality possession but because their attacking patterns are predictable, once the opposition is well organised, it is relatively easy to defend against and as a result Munster must commit too many players to rucks.
There are two upshots: they run out of numbers in attack and the opposition defence smothers them to the point where they either turn over possession or are forced to kick.
A lack of depth in the tight five continues to undermine Ulster and it's one problem to which they must find a solution
The set piece didn’t provide a traditional platform from which to launch. Munster’s five lineouts produced a penalty, a crooked throw and the other three Leinster managed to turn over. The scrum stats were equally unproductive, one slight opportunity created from five put-ins but ultimately three led to turnovers and from the other two, they kicked the ball back to Leinster. Across the 80 minutes it is hard to recall a genuine line break from anyone in red.
And yet Munster retain the capacity to end any team's season if they can get out of their own way and are bolder in selection and tactics in the knockout stages of the URC or Champions Cup. The next three matches, the back-to-back European games against the Exeter Chiefs and the URC clash with Ulster will reveal a great deal about what's possible before season's end.
Selection will inform tactics. Johann van Graan's decisions have been difficult to understand at times, albeit he has been consistent. While Munster were hampered by injuries that denied them the considered presence of Haley, Zebo and Beirne, choosing Chris Cloete over O'Donoghue was hard to reconcile.
Obviously, it was with an eye to disrupting Leinster at the breakdown but at some point, the focus must be on what you’re going to do when you get the ball. If Munster are preoccupied with stopping the Exeter Chiefs, they will lose over the two legs. Johann van Graan must be bolder in selection, recognising form and not previous service.
If he retains that conservatism, then Munster may have to rely on Exeter being off colour or somehow unearthing the type of performances that saw them beat Clermont Auvergne or stand toe to toe with Toulouse. If they lose out in Europe, then the URC game in Belfast and the fast-closing South African teams ramp up the pressure tenfold.
Ulster have their own issues after the trip to South Africa and they face a pivotal three-game run. They will need to be at their very best for two matches against the reigning European champions Toulouse and the visit of Munster. It’ll be tough to finish on the right side of that assignment schedule.
A lack of depth in the tight five continues to undermine Ulster and it’s one problem to which they must find a solution. Mistakes hurt them against the Bulls but, to their credit, Ulster shifted it up tactically to try and find a way to win. It didn’t materialise but it did show game intelligence.
Leinster's lack of outright success in Europe in recent years will drive the group as much as Johnny Sexton's cajoling
Three of the four Irish provinces will be starting this week trying to find a way to overcome the challenge at their doorstep and rally morale to try and buck recent trends. Leinster’s gaze is not outwards as they must protect from the enemy within.
After an extremely dominant performance against their old rivals down the road, Leinster’s primary challenge this week is not about the opposition but themselves. This is not meant as a slight on Connacht, who have been so fun to watch this season, but sadly recognition that they have been equally as frustrating.
Andy Friend’s team possessess the ability to turn it up and on against any team and have done so to Leinster in the past, but it is for that reason that the visitors, forewarned, should be forearmed; singular and hardnosed in their focus come Friday evening in Galway.
Leinster's lack of outright success in Europe in recent years will drive the group as much as Johnny Sexton's cajoling. I'd expect Cullen to freshen the team a little from that which started in Limerick, the return of the Irish frontrow with Ross Molony and/or Max Deegan promoted to the starting team.
Injuries will curtail change in the backline, but it would not be a surprise if Ciaran Frawley got a chance. The players from the Munster match showed what is required to compete for places in this team; Jimmy O'Brien, Garry Ringrose and Caelan Doris catching the eye, as well as big Dev Toner rolling back the years.
Competition for places will need to drive performance and if that’s achieved it will offer the basis for selection when it comes to knockout rugby; it’s a formula that’s common to all successful teams.