Liam Toland: Nature of the Connacht loss raises difficult questions for Munster
Due to yellow cards and the effort expended, Munster looked wrecked by the 50th minute
Finlay Bealham is tackled by Munster duo Billy Holland and Donnacha Ryan – the Connacht man’s technique around the breakdown was magnificent. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
As soon as the final whistle blew I left the Sportsground. I collected my car at The Connacht Hotel and off to Dublin I went to catch a long haul plane to the land of Col Nathan R Jessup of A Few Good Men. And without customary levels of Wifi my I’ve been untainted by social nor press media alike. My mind did, however, drift to Lt Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) when he asked “do you have an answer to the question, Colonel?” “Absolutely” replied the Colonel. My answer is I don’t have the first damn clue”.
I fancy Munster do know the answers to the many questions raised on social media. The problem for those high up in the organisation is 21 years have flown by since the advent of professionalism and many of those questions were alive back then. So how can you openly deliver clear and concise answers when you have been in charge all that time? The obvious comeback is: “You seem to know the problems; so what have you done?”
In professional sport accountability is an opportunity to improve where; as we are witnessing these past 50 odd days, politics is simply an endurance test.
In the meantime Connacht have reshaped their organisation from the top down; including utilising legend Eric Elwood whose influence will reverberate for years to come. Munster don’t appear to have his quality and crucial experience in a similar role.
Exit strategyBut away from the politics of the problem and back to the pitch. I expected Munster to come out raging, which in many ways they did. I expected them to test Connacht’s exit strategy, which they did as when Conor Murray blocked the clearance kick. They clearly laid the trap for Connacht to seize and it worked.
I then expected Munster to bully Connacht; not through their over abundance of talent but through their culture.
Considering the pressure on the visitors and the perfect weather conditions that greeted them they started extremely brightly. The scrum caused Munster huge problems but the lack of them early on (two in the opening 15mins) highlights the general quality of handling from both sides. We expect this from Connacht but less so Munster. To their credit, they went over and back inching forward and not dropping the ball. Small mercies in their current form.
Then CJ Stander passed the ball forward and into touch. How can this happen; forward and into touch. In fact the poor ‘skipped’ winger Sweetnam had precious few passes. A struggling Munster pack conceded a penalty off the resulting scrum; with Connacht in possession Stander conceded a ruck penalty; 3-0. But then came a lovely interchange between Munster No 8 Jack O’Donoghue and the ever exciting and dangerous Simon Zebo leading to the opening try; 3-7.
Knowing so many involved I was delighted that Munster had started so brightly and when O’Donoghue popped in to Zebo I felt a warmth inside: ‘this game is turning into a cracker’, I thought.
I expected Munster to target Bundee Aki in the old fashioned way. They certainly gave him suitable levels of attention but something very strange started to happen. Munster suffered two yellow cards which is never ideal. They must examine honestly the cause of them and then the subsequent effect. What was happening?
But then I was shocked to notice that by the 50th minute the yellow cards and the sheer effort to contain Connacht, Munster looked wrecked. Suddenly the decent runs from earlier by secondrows Aly Muldowney and Ultan Dillane that had been hammered were breaking weak shoulders.
In fact nearly every Connacht ball carrier was making yards on the ever-weakening Munster defence. This is the insight into the gulf between the teams.
Munster for a million reasons should finish the stronger but Aki et al were thriving. Where Francis Saili and his Munster team-mates had traded blows, after an hour Aki was marking the fixture as his own. Was it exhaustion or simply the gulf? Of course one begets the other but Munster shouldn’t tire in that way.
I’ve long been an advocate of Denis Buckley but it was my first time dedicating ample time to Finlay Bealham. He earned two of the opening three Connacht scrum penalties and had James Cronin in the bin but his technique around the breakdown was magnificent. He clearly keeps everything very, very simple but his execution is lethal; his back on entry of the ruck is perfectly horizontal, his feet position perfect and his choice of entry is very clever. If you don’t watch him you’ll miss it entirely; so watch him and his fitness to score that try late on.
Subtle interplaysConnacht have developed a series of obvious combinations but it’s their far less subtle interplays that put them way ahead of Munster who continue to narrow their approach the closer they get to the opposition’s line. Yes Munster scored a vital try bringing the score to 6-14 off a lineout maul. But rugby can be so much easier. All the while Sweetnam was standing alone, unmarked and totally ignored by those inside him. In fact I wonder what he thinks of it all. Passes in front and into touch and then totally ignored; then he was taken off.
What of the Munster supporter? Moments before Col. R Jessup was dragged out of the courtroom he asked Lt Kaffee: “You want answers?” and the Lt replied “I think I’m entitled to”. “You want answers?” Jessup repeats. “I want the truth!” to which Col R Jessup announces to the court “you can’t handle the truth”.