IN ALL FAIRNESS - Groundhog days for Munster

It was the same old story for Munster when it comes to knockout games under Johann Van Graan last Saturday. The PRO14 final defeat to Leinster was the sixth successive loss in a semi-final or final in the four seasons under the South African, four of them coming at the hands of their greatest rivals in the league with the remaining two at the hands of Saracens (2019) and Racing 92 (2018) in the Champions Cup.

It is a dispiriting sequence for the province who appear to be making strides each year but when they come up against a real heavyweight, they are falling short in largely the same manner. There was plenty of optimism that last Saturday would be different where apart from the injured RG Snyman, Munster were at full strength with Leinster missing the injured James Ryan, Will Connors and Caolin Doris, while Johnny Sexton and Tadhg Furlong were held back on the bench following their recent exertions with Ireland.

No not only were Munster unable to take advantage of an understrength Leinster, they were never really in the game at any stage. The 16-6 final scoreline was flattering as Leinster dominated the ball and territory, and if more clinical, it could have been a humiliation. Munster’s defence was heroic but once again it was in an offensive sense that they struggled, converting two of four penalties and had no try-scoring opportunity of note. A lot of that was due to Leinster’s gameplan where they didn’t kick the ball away, carrying the ball effectively and pinned their rivals back for long spells, leaving Munster with very little to work off of.

However, six points is never going to win big games and it is the continuation of a trend in the knockout defeats where Munster have scored 6, 3, 9, 16, 15, 10 and 22 points in the last four years. The latter was the 2018 Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Racing 92 when Munster scored three second half tries when the game was already lost.

To score, you need a platform set by the forwards and in Munster’s case this is usually their strength but against the better sides they are meeting their match. After that, there appears to be no plan B to try and change the trajectory of games. Much was made of the appointment of Stephen Larkham as backs coach but almost two years since his arrival, Munster still look predictable with the ball in hand. They cannot afford to be predictable this Saturday in the Champions Cup Last 16 clash with Toulouse at Thomond Park as the French side, with the outstanding Antoine Dupont running the ship, Munster won’t be able to win on defence alone and it’s not as if they don’t have finishers in the likes of Keith Earls and Andrew Conway to score tries, but they won’t score if they aren’t given the ball.

Kenny dealt a poor hand

Irish football has had some great days over the last fifty years or so but last Saturday’s World Cup qualifier defeat at home to Luxembourg surely counts as the lowest. However, it was a result that was coming, and one wonders is there further to go before we reach rock bottom.

Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny has come in for a lot of criticism and rightly so for the defeat and he knew taking the job that unless he got results quickly the pressure would be on. However, he has inherited a squad short on quality, with only Seamus Coleman and Matt Doherty, playing on teams in the top-half of the Premier League, while Dara O’Shea, Enda Stevens, Callum Robinson and possibly Ciaran Clarke are at clubs that could be relegated from it in the coming months.

There have been green shoots in recent years with our underage sides reaching European tournament finals but they are not ready to carry the weight of the country on their shoulders. It will take time and it doesn’t help that many of them such as Troy Parrott, Adam Idah, Jason Molumby, Jason Knight etc…are plying their trade in the second and third tiers of the English game which is stalling their progress.

Indeed, while it is great to see our own Barry Coffey getting first team football with Cliftonville in Northern Ireland, it is a long way off the level hoped for at this stage for the now twenty-year-old. However, he isn’t the only one suffering from being at Celtic which hasn’t worked out for many young Irish players recently, including Luca Connell, Lee O’Connor, Jonathan Afolabi with none having broken into the first team as yet and are out on loan at lower tier English and Scottish clubs.However, they cannot be written off as there is time to mature and one wonders if they find the right setting and manager.

Since Robbie Keane and Damien Duff burst onto the scene in the late nineties, we haven’t had young players of their calibre come onto the Irish senior team. We are developing good players, not great players, and with the financial issues set to strangle the FAI in the short term, one wonders how Irish football can take its player development to another level and ensure their struggles at senior level at the moment are only temporary rather than the start of a longer term malaise.

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