There was likely to have been little said on the plane home from South Wales on Saturday night as Munster mull over the fifth defeat of their Guinness PRO14 campaign wondering how they didn’t come out of Parc y Scarlets with all four points.
As a result, their 10-6 defeat in torrential conditions means that Glasgow Warriors overtake them in first spot in Conference A after the Scottish side’s bonus-point victory over Zebre.
With just three points separating the sides, the battle for first place and that elusive home semi-final, which has been a goal for this squad from the beginning of the season, looks set to go down to the wire.
Munster have the slightly easier of run-ins compared to their Scottish rivals but they will not be pleased with how they blew numerous try-scoring opportunities and consequently, handed the initiative to Dave Rennie’s men.
The worrying aspect to all of this from a Munster supporter’s point of view is that lack of a knockout blow or killer edge in the ‘red zone’ which is a problem that won’t seem to go away.
The most recent example came this weekend, where Munster dominated territory and possession in Llanelli – 70 percent and 66 percent, respectively.
Those statistics were even higher in their favour in the opening 40 minutes yet all they had to show for their first-half efforts were two penalties from the boot of Bill Johnston.
Munster’s attacking gameplan has come in for some criticism this season, most notably in phase play where they find it difficult to break down opponents.
That being said, Johann van Graan’s side have an excellent kicking game which, although may not be too easy on the eye, is very effective and gets them into good positions which was the case against the Scarlets this weekend.
Their setpiece, both in scrum and maul, has been very successful, often yielding penalties to generate better field position.
But when Munster come up against a stern defence as they did on Saturday, they find it difficult to get over the whitewash when going through the phases.
Too often the southern province knocked the ball on needlessly or took the wrong carrying option which led to an isolated ball-carrier and subsequent turnover.
The southern province seemed to lack clarity in how they were going to break down this defence and were reluctant to move the ball wide which may have been a decision due to the wet conditions.
As previously stated, this issue has cropped up on more than one occasion this season.
An early season away defeat to the Cardiff Blues also saw territory and possession in Munster’s favour yet they were on the wrong end of a 37-13 scoreline.
One game which most supporters will remember was Munster’s loss to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium in October. Munster had 68 percent territory and 65 percent possession over the reigning champions yet they spurned many opportunities to win that game as they succumbed to a 30-22 defeat.
In the Heineken Champions Cup, Munster did beat Castres at Thomond Park but they only managed a 6-0 lead at halftime and couldn’t get the bonus-point victory. In this game, they had 66 percent territory and 63 percent possession.
In the return fixture in France, which Munster lost, the southern province won out in the possession stakes again but they left France without registering a try. A deeper look at the stats from the game suggests that Munster are doing a lot right to get in some ideal positions but perhaps lack confidence or clarity when the try line is within their sights.
- Metres Gained: Castres 166 Munster 306
- Line Breaks: Castres 2 Munster 5
- Defenders Beaten: Castres 3 Munster 13
Van Graan has put a big emphasis on improving the Munster players’ skill set this season and the reason for this came most notably in their PRO14 semi-final loss to Leinster last season.
Again, in that fixture, Munster dominated possession (56%) and territory (59%) but when they backed themselves to go around their bitter rivals, their wide attacking moves often broke down through poor execution even though the ambition was evident.
As we are still in the midst of winter rugby, despite what the calendar suggests, we may not see the dividends of this increased focus on skills until the tail end of the season when the southern province will hope to still be in a position to claim silverware on two fronts.
However, what they can work on, as they enter a three-week break, is developing a better sense of what is required when they enter the ‘red zone’ against their rivals or to even go one better, develop an effective Plan B to implement when their initial direct carrying tactic doesn’t yield dividends.
If they fail to do this, it may be another trophy-less season down south.