YESTERDAY’S GAME IN the south of France was a disappointment for all Munster rugby supporters, a disappointment but not a surprise.
The warning signs have been there for quite some time. Reliance on heart and grit to get Munster through the current set of problems was not enough.
Munster have qualified for the knockout stages on the Heineken Cup 12 times in succession and yesterday saw the end of that proud record. Next weekend’s final group game against London Irish could be the last European game for a few of their great servants.
Congratulations to Toulon, they outplayed Munster and deserve to qualify for the knockout stages.
But what next for Munster, both short-term and longer-term, how does the team bounce back? It’s time to take stock, time for a few great servants to move on, then time to rebuild.
A shake-up of this squad is necessary; a shake-up of the management is also required.
In the first half, Munster played without an apparent gameplan. Unable to string phases together with conceding possession or penalties. They made little effort to play for territory, instead opting to spread the ball wide where the well organised Toulon defense more often than not shepherded the wingers into touch.
The backline play was unimaginative, predictable and lacked any penetration.
There was a real lack of discipline in this Munster side, Donncha O’Callaghan’s needless obstruction earned him a yellow card, only for Ronan O’Gara to see yellow later in the game for an off-the-ball incident with Toulon scrumhalf Mignoni. It wasn’t until the last 10 mins when they 23 points down that the Reds kept the ball alive and this is what they should have been doing all match.
Meanwhile, the Munster scrum had that familiar creaking sound that we have been hearing all season.
The issue of players who appear to be beyond their prime is one that has to be addressed. Is it finally the end of the road for John Hayes, Marcus Horan, Alan Quinlan and David Wallace?
The scary answer to this question for two of these players is no. Hayes and Wallace will almost definitely be taken on the plane to New Zealand later in the autumn and, so, will play up until the World Cup is over. But Munster need to go deeper than just replacing those that retire. There is immediate need for some international-standard players in key positions.
To make this happen Munster should consider the release of Mafi and Tuitupou. This along with the departure of Paul Warwick frees up three non-Irish-qualified player contracts.
So, what’s on Munster’s shopping list for the close season? An inside centre, an international-standard back row and a tighthead prop perhaps?
Looking at previous Munster inside-centres, the likes of Halstead and Tipoki are Munster legends, both similar hard man-straight-running-battering-ram-style players.
Watching yesterday’s game and lack of penetration by the backs, this weakness was never more apparent. With a style of player such as Halstead playing alongside Keith Earls, they would reap much richer rewards.
One player that fits this mould of inside centre is Kiwi Ma’a Nonu, the rumours of his move to Munster have quietened in the last month or so, but expect then to flare up again very soon.
Regarding the back row, Munster have some quality coming through from the academy in Peter O’Mahony and Paddy Butler, but they would benefit from an international-standard backrower to balance things out. As far as the tighthead prop situation goes, all I can say is that Ulster Rugby will need to keep 24hr surveillance on BJ Botha until he has signed a new contract for them.
The Munster management missed a trick by not making inquiries regarding Connacht’s young prop Jamie Hagan has been outstanding for them this season. He signed deal last week which will see him staying in the west for another two years. It’s now time to blood the up-and-coming players like Mike Sherry, Ian Nagle, Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray.
Munster still nine points clear at the top of the Magners League and are as-good-as qualified for the knockout stages. The Amlin Challenge Cup should be the next target, the next the best pool runners-up after the two who qualify as 7th and 8th seeds for the Heineken Cup get in.
What do Munster need to do to qualify? Win next week with four points and Castres have to get a five point win against Northampton to overtake Munster.
This post first appeared at NinetyNineCall.