If Racing stop Munster up front, they’ll have final word

8 April 2018

Thomond Park and its 26,000-plus fanatics made quite the din last Saturday.

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There was way too much noise for perspective, but Peter O’Mahony wasn’t long in finding some afterwards. Munster would have to deliver an improved performance in the Champions Cup semi-final against Racing 92, he indicated.

Bang on. A similar lack of execution is unlikely to have an Andrew Conway miracle moment at the end. There were too many errors in too many aspects of Munster’s game against Toulon to escape to victory a second time.

Munster give you every drop they have. If Racing 92 were aware of that reputation, they’ve now seen it for themselves. Being aware of such a phenomenon, though, is different from dealing with it.

The comforting thing for Munster this week in review is that they won’t play as bad in the semi-final.

The kicking game, especially from the half-backs was poor. Toulon burned three try-scoring opportunities. Munster were brave and physical and courageous, but they have to be a bit smarter.

Just like Cristiano Ronaldo’s wonder goal in midweek, you almost expect smarts out of Conor Murray at this stage and doubtless his opening try was a gamechanger. But we saw how Munster aren’t the same when his box kicks are off. It underlined a big void in their game.

Murray didn’t kick well last Saturday, which is the first time you could say that in a while. Usually it’s an effective tool with brave wingers and Conor’s pinpoint accuracy. You had brave wingers, but the kicks weren’t accurate against Toulon.

When Toulon turned the ball over before Trinh-Duc fatally missed touch, Keatley threw out a miss-pass of 12 yards which you can’t be doing. It was there hanging in the air for three seconds. It underlined how desperate Munster were.

Let’s call this. It took an absolute moment of magic, magic we haven’t seen at Thomond park for a long time, from Conway to deny Toulon the win. It was that good, and startling for Conway to do that in the 76th minute, given his lack of game time in recent months.

Conditioning is critical here. From a Toulon point of view, you kick away from your forwards, then the kick chase is not going to be as strong. But if the reaction of the Toulon defence in that moment wasn’t great, it’s not altogether surprising for a French team five minutes from the end of the game.

Toulon’s frustration will be strong because they were home and hosed. Having scored a good try, they exited very well after, won a good penalty to go six points clear. Conway had a 5% chance to plunder the win and the rest is history.

Fabien Galthie and the Toulon players were evidently frustrated with some of Nigel Owens’ decisions.

For sure, the early call between Chris Ashton and Simon Zebo should have been a penalty try all day long, especially with the new rules.

Maybe three years ago there might have been a grey area, but nowadays, you just can’t do that.

You cannot legislate for the game’s momentum to change so radically as it did in that six-minute conversation between Nigel Owens and his TMO over Munster’s first try.

For the best part of that discussion, the idea that Munster would walk away with five points hardly merited consideration.

There’s the problem with interpretation. Is Murray offside, is the ball out, is it a ruck? You could swing your argument any which way you please on that one with the various interpretation of the law.

What interested me was the verbal communication between Owens and his TMO, Jonathan Mason.

The latter seemed to be very much influenced by Nigel’s form of questioning. He clearly knows his behaviour; there seemed almost a common language between them, like one knew what the other was thinking and what way Owens was leaning on decisions.

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The touch judge, Ian Davies, in my book, was also involved to a significant degree. I love my referees to be efficient and unobtrusive. The match time probably went over 100 minutes. It’s not the NFL.

Racing would have preferred Toulon in a semi. The devil you know and all that. It’s a semi-final that’s hard to call. But if Racing show up in Bordeaux, they will be a hard team to beat.

Bordeaux will be full of Munster fans, but the players won’t know the run of the ground, even though in a previous life, the stadium delivered great Munster memories in 2000.

Racing played bloody well in Clermont, but it’s not a surprise. They have match winners and it’s the time of year when they will come to the boil, come alive. They’ve been building and building, and the culture in the club has changed.

They will be more organised opponents than Toulon, plus they have key players, smart performers in critical positions — Donnacha Ryan in the forwards, Dan Carter and Pat Lambie at 10, Maxime Machenaud a scrum-half on the top of his form.

Neither do Toulon have the quality of forward talent that Racing possess. His 80-minute fitness is questionable, but prop Ben Tameifuna is a serious proposition. Ditto Nakawara, Nyanga, and Wen Lauret. The Racing pack would be better than Toulon’s.

Racing will feel if they stop Munster up front, they will win in Bordeaux. Donnacha is an ace to have in your pack, a one-man video review unit on Munster’s forward play. An extremely smart and sharp man and a serious asset for any team.

Just as the Munster support is clearly a tangible factor in their favour, people cannot forget that no other team in Europe has a Dan Carter in their locker.

Even at 36, he made the difference when he came on in Clermont last Sunday. Irrespective of how he shares the 10 duties with Lambie, you know that if Carter’s coming on, he will influence proceedings.

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The Munster midfield is unlikely to change for the semi-final, but they wouldn’t be there had Rory Scannell not made the starting 15. He was exceptional, did a volume of hard, thankless work without the ball.

Plus, his kicking was very good. He was the glue that kept it together. Usually, there are questions when a team loses, but would there have been if Munster had come up short last Saturday?

They were riddled with injuries, that’s the truth of it. They might get Keith Earls back for the semi-final, but probably nobody else. Munster’s options will not be as varied as Racing’s.

Leinster remain hot favourites to win the Champions Cup, and nothing seen on Sunday changes that view. In a high-quality quarter-final, Leinster broke Saracens after half-time.

Dan Leavy had another monster game and you peer down the track and wonder if or when this Leinster runaway train is going to run out of juice. James Ryan isn’t going to win every game in his professional career. Or is he?

At the minute, Leinster rugby is a juggernaut in a way that not even Sarries in their pomp could match in terms of pure depth.

Scarlets will play a different game, present different questions of them in the semi-final, and with decent weather conditions, it should be a fast track at the Aviva.

My question is: Why and how is that semi-final at Lansdowne Road?

It is surely stretching the definition of ‘neutral’ to say that the Aviva Stadium is not a home game for Leinster? It’s basically home field advantage. I get that the RDS is officially Leinster’s home ground.

But on that basis could Racing use the U Arena and declare Colombes as their home ground for the Munster semi-final?

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