As Johnny Sexton panted after the game – Leinster vs Munster is both sides’ biggest game of the year, even bigger than the overall scheme of the Pro12 Championship.
Not too many would disagree with the oft grumbling pivot. Such titanic battles, even on down years continue to be the benchmark to judge players and progression by. This becomes all the more crucial when both teams are rebuilding, focused by a lack of European rugby action, a rarity in modern Irish rugby for Munster and Leinster.
On that basis, Munster can be very happy with much of their performance against Leinster yesterday evening. They managed to push themselves up the field at crucial times to relieve pressure and attack, achieved parity in the scrum and ruck against the internationally stacked and experienced Leinster pack and found themselves camped on the try line with the game in reach all the way to the final whistle.
However, their lack of experience cost them dearly, twice butchering an overlap in the final moments despite an extra man advantage.
In ways, while Leinster were often wasteful also, their scores came by capitalising upon Munster mistakes, such as scoring immediately after Johnny Holland’s try and following a soft penalty from Francis Saili’s effort to displace the ball from the base of a ruck.
Oh how old Munster head’s are missed.
The most negative and infuriating part of Munster’s performance came after the hour mark. Negative action in the clutch period of the game were often attributable to the introduction of Ian Keatley. The often maligned out-half entered the game with everything in the melting pot.
Some may have thought of the twenty-nine year old’s introduction to the game at such a crucial phase as being a pragmatic decision by Anthony Foley. It would allow for a veteran to steer Munster home after the youngster had shown his mettle. However, there is an entirely opposite reaction which is justifiable also. A loud exhale followed around my viewing point as we saw the substitute jersey enter the fray.
With twenty minutes to go, this was not all Keatley’s fault either. Bar a period where Johnny Sexton decided to dominate the game, Johnny Holland, a rookie in his second consecutive start looked like he belonged on the pitch with such experienced luminaries. It would be easy to overstate Holland’s performance, but he did everything you would have wanted for a young fly half and gave as good as he got for large periods.
Holland had the opportunity to start with an easy place kick after Simon Zebo mishandled from a short distance and that certainly got him on the horse. He followed this up with solid defensive work and communication with the only slightly more experienced (and solid) Rory Scannell.
Impressively, Holland recognised that no hole existed in Kurt McQuilkan’s solid defensive line, poking Leinster back into their own territory with low tactical grubber kicks along the Aviva Stadium turf. While far from the same execution, the idea and attempt at game management was reminiscent of another Corkman of yesteryear.
Forever growing in confidence, Holland made all of his kicks on the evening and finished splendidly from close range for Munster’s solitary try, finding inches between Sean Cronin and Zane Kirchner. He executed his exclamation point, calming his breathing sufficiently to split the posts with a sideline conversion.
In consequence-laden games in recent memory such as this, Munster have been barren in implementing top performances from the out-half position, especially as Keatley has been bereft of confidence, making easy mistakes and not trusting his decision making.
Most will remember ‘Boo-Gate’ as Munster supporters, renowned as the salt of the earth fans, resorted to shouting abuse at their own, causing outrage on a slow media week. The former Connacht place-kicker improved for a period at the turn of the year, kicking Munster to a 9-7 win in the worst of elements against Ulster.
However, Keatley’s damage to his own squad in the final stanza tonight will re-open the debate as to whether he should enter the fray for Munster in the future. Within minutes of his introduction he stood over a 40 metre penalty which never even looked like it would come inside the far upright.
Soon after collecting a loose ball his kick intended for the touchline was more of a GAA kick pass towards Sexton’s stomach. That led to Leinster’s winning penalty a few phases later. He carried on with a knock on followed with a penalty in an attacking position after not releasing the ball. It was an absolute nightmare.
Yet, Munster found themselves with a penalty on the half way line after Cian Healy’s brainless no arm tackle which also resulted in a sin-binning.
Not even the admittedly biased Brian O’Driscoll sought to save his own.
Hard to defend that! 🙈
— Brian O'Driscoll (@BrianODriscoll) April 2, 2016
Keatley’s kick reached the ’22 before the ever improving Munster maul was hauled down.
In what wasn’t the first example of poor refereeing (albeit against both teams), Ian Davies could not identify a man to go to the sin-bin, inconsistent with his stance which led Robin Copeland there in the first half.
Still with just the one man advantage, Munster sought refuge in the corner again. Off the resulting maul, Mike Sherry was stopped, reminiscent of Connacht’s goal line stand a week ago and Jamie Heaslip could count himself lucky his part in it only resulted in a scrum and not a penalty. Fine margins…
Leo Cullen chose to continue with a full pack of forwards, inputting Jack McGrath for Zane Kirchner instead of a back-row forward. As the attack went laterally across the field, Keatley risked it all by putting boot to ball for a grubber, his final piece of luck cashed in as the ball bounced back to him allowing Munster to retain possession. Heaslip was finally penalised but try-line fever cost Munster as Dave Kilcoyne juggled a tap penalty before Mike Sherry eventually knocked the ball on to end the contest.
While a certain traditional element in Munster would not bat an eye at the forwards grunting forward with the ball at the expense of the backline, one could notice a difference with Keatley at first receiver. The ball found its way into the backline less and less as his mistakes piled up and while Leinster left a double overlap exploitable with a minute to go, the pack didn’t trust Keatley enough to let the ball out. It relinquished its grip when it was too late – at Simon Zebo’s expense as he was flipped into the air and onto his back.
The questions will re-emerge as to whether Keatley is up to the standard and after three years of questions, it may be tantamount that Munster move on from a 29 year old who is bringing them no where fast. He has come through on some big days in the past, but without the stars of old a quality 10 has to bring that bit of class for Munster. He did not lose the match for Munster, but the depreciation upon his introduction was most discernible and while Leinster did enough to win the game, Keatley plundered attacking positions and phase play opportunities at crucial times.
While Keatley’s best Munster performances came while threatened with the presence of JJ Hanrahan last year, he has continued to lose game time and opportunities to Rory Scannell and now Johnny Holland.
Further, this debate could have been well over had Tyler Bleyendall managed to stay healthy for any considerable period. One must also remember that Keatley was not Munster’s first choice to attempt to replace the irreplaceable Ronan O’Gara, but for the fact they were denied the funds to bring in a top quality foreign replacement.
Keatley’s Munster contract was renewed for a two year period last year, but in the south they expect better. Out-Half is now the key position on their shopping list followed by tighthead prop. Being linked earlier in the year to six cap Springbok Johan Goosen, now sitting third in the Racing Metro pecking order may in fact be the answer.
Until a replacement can hopefully be found, Munster will rue letting the uber-talented former World Junior Player of the Year nominee Hanrahan depart for Northampton Saints. We saw enough steel tonight in Johnny Holland for him to continue as the starting pivot until years end.
Given Munster’s precarious predicament, threatened with the possibility of not being in the Champions Cup next year unless they retain their one point lead for 6th spot in the Pro12 over Edinburgh. The kid came through in the clutch for as long as he was allowed to and until Keatley can pick himself off the floor, Holland may very well be the best bet Munster has got.
Read More About: brian o'driscoll, fly-half, ian keatley, irish rugby, Johnny Holland, Johnny Sexton, leinster rugby, Munster, munster rugby, out-half, Rory Scannell, Rugby, sean cronin, Tyler Bleyendall, zane kirchner