Munster make discipline a priority ahead of all-important Racing tie
Conceding penalties due to skills errors must be avoided, says CJ Stander
Andrew Conway impedes Leinster’s James Lowe, leading to a penalty try and a yellow card against the Munster player during the Pro14 game at Thomond Park on St Stephen’s Day. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Discipline was a common conversational theme in the post-match debrief following Munster’s 39-13 victory over Connacht at Thomond Park with an insight sought from players and head coach Johann van Graan ahead of next Sunday’s pivotal Champions Cup match against Racing 92 at the French club’s glittering new U Arena home in Paris.
The issue had a broader context, drawn from the province’s three interprovincial matches over the Christmas and new year period, to ascertain whether it was a significant contributory factor in two defeats to Ulster and Leinster. The short answer is yes and no respectively.
Munster conceded just seven penalties in their home defeat to Leinster, 12 against Ulster that included a red card for centre Sam Arnold and nine in their victory over Connacht; it averages at a little over nine, which is a smidgeon above a figure that’s considered attainable or desirable as an upper end benchmark set by the playing group and management.
One of Munster’s try scorers at the weekend, Andrew Conway, confirmed that it is a topic that’s consistently broached. “Discipline is the focus every week but sometimes it just gets away from you. In the interpros we had a red card, a few yellow cards and when you are playing against quality opposition you are going to get beaten if you have people off the pitch for any given time.
“Discipline is always a massive thing and is a constant work-on; Pete [O’Mahony] was driving it, CJ [Stander] was driving it to keep it under seven or eight, the penalty count, especially at home. It’s definitely going to be big going away in France next weekend.”
While the aspirations are fine and dandy, Stander, who captained Munster in the win over Connacht – club captain O’Mahony was an unused replacement – admitted that the discussions about discipline were delineated between the unfortunate and the avoidable.
“When you play professional rugby, you know that [as a] team if you give away more than 10 penalties you are going to struggle. It’s something we spoke about for the last few weeks. If it is for effort, then it’s all right but if it’s a skill error, for not rolling away [or things like that then it has to be avoided].
“I gave one away. Sometimes you get caught in the wrong position but you need to work harder, make better tackles, better carries and look after the ball.”
Munster’s disciplinary travails in the game against Connacht came from an unusual source, albeit there was a thematic tone in the concession of a penalty in the first minute, for the third time in four matches. Munster head coach Johann van Graan pointed out that statistic before he addressed the scrum issue.
“We haven’t been conceding penalties in the scrum for quite some time; I think we conceded three. Rory [Scannell] kicked the ball [in the ruck] still [operating] on old laws. He immediately apologised for that and I thought we adapted really well after he [the referee] called in both teams [to talk about] the breakdown and the way he wanted it.”
The Ulster match was an aberration in disciplinary terms taken in the context of the last three matches and it was primarily the second half of that game that cost Munster dearly but as Stander explained it was losing key players that left the team a little rudderless.
“Against Ulster we lost one or two leaders in the second half and a few voices were missing. A lot of boys will have learned from that and we have to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We need to have team leaders and when we lose them we need to make sure one or two others are there to step up.”
He contended that instead of playing well for just a single half of matches against Leinster and Ulster, Munster managed a more complete performance in the Connacht win, an impetus that they can take to Paris for what is a very difficult assignment against a Racing 92 side – it includes Munster old boy Donnacha Ryan – that thumped an injury ravaged Clermont Auvergne 58-6 in the French Top 14 last weekend.
While O’Mahony was an unused replacement against Connacht – van Graan decided not to risk the Munster captain and instead play out the final throes of the contest with 14 players when Andrew Conway was injured – flanker Chris Cloete was also missing as he observed the return-to-play protocols following a head knock against Ulster.
In their absence Stander paid tribute to their deputies, Jack O’Donoghue and Conor Oliver. “The two boys with me in the backrow showed the pace they have. Conor Oliver comes back from a long lay-off and gets man of the match.
“Jack O’Donoghue always pitches up; he has worked really hard over the last few weeks so Johann [van Graan] is going to have a tough job picking his side and especially in the backrow. Peter [O’Mahony] has had two weeks off now; he’ll pitch up on Tuesday. We need to give him the extra bit of rest and make sure he’s fresh again to lead us out going into Europe. He plays hard every game and leads us from the front.”
Secondrow Billy Holland, who missed his first match of the season against Connacht following a head injury in the Ulster match, could come back into contention for Sunday’s game against Racing. Munster will offer an update on injury issues at lunchtime.