Sporting narratives can be misleading. Not every knockback gets a fairytale redemption arc, not every journey ends in glory, not every ending is a happy one. That’s the wheel – sometimes you’re under it and sometimes you’re rolling high but you have to know that it’s always turning.
On Sunday, the wheel turned on Munster’s European journey for 2017-2018 and saw the path to an All-Ireland final ended with a comprehensive five-point defeat to Racing 92 in the stifling heat of Bordeaux. A comprehensive five-point defeat doesn’t sound right, does it? The scoreboard said 27-22 but the scoreboard doesn’t tell you the story of the game. When this one was being decided – inside the first 30 minutes – Munster just weren’t accurate enough. This isn’t just about missed tackles (even though there were a few), this is about Munster failing to take the plethora of chances put in front of them and then eating three sucker punch tries in quick succession row.
Last year against Saracens, Munster couldn’t really say with any authority that they left the game behind them. Saracens did a lot of defending, sure, but they always had an air of comfort about their work that Munster couldn’t ever really upset.
This was not the case here, as strange as it might sound.
We had enough ball and enough chances to win this game, even allowing for the massive lead. In a way, Racing’s three tries reminded me of three vicious counter punches. You couldn’t say that they were “against the run of play”, far from it, but they illustrated some remarkable efficiency with their possession that Munster just couldn’t match.
Would it surprise you to learn that Racing had 31% possession in this game? Or that they had 23% territory? Or that they missed more tackles than Munster did? Or that they carried the ball 93 times fewer than Munster? Or that Munster beat more defenders and made more offloads than Racing did? I was suprised, and I watched games like this for a living. All those stats show you is that stats don’t tell you much of anything without context.
This wasn’t a game that Munster hit a glass ceiling like last season – although Racing’s defence resembled one at times – this was a game where, collectively, we just didn’t turn up offensively when it counted.
The first Racing try was a poor one to concede in that Munster never managed to get a stop on Racing’s possession either through dominant tackling or breakdown work and Racing found the outside edge with enough angles and options to overrun in the wider channels.
Wootton will get criticism from some for missing the tackle but look at the angle he faced with Thomas. On a hard track, that’s a missable tackle and miss it he did.
The real damage was done in the phases prior.
Look at the pace Racing got on the ruck ball. They expended massive energy but their cardio gamble paid off for them as Munster couldn’t ever get “set” defensively. Munster were reacting to Racing’s carrying rather than proactively managing their attacking patterns. The pace Racing got on this early possession prevented Munster from even applying a defensive system, let alone executing it and we paid the price.
But at this point, it wasn’t the end of the world.
Conceding a try like this happens, as much as it shouldn’t. It’s a hot day, it’s a hard track and Racing have big, powerful forwards. What mattered then was how we reacted. Munster needed to be calm, clinical and accurate.
We were none of those things. Look at these moments in the aftermath of Racing’s first try;
Munster racked up plenty possession but time and again they failed to crank the pressure in ways that would really hurt Racing. That was down to a few things; Racing’s excellent chop tackling, Munster’s lack of attacking composure and Racing’s ability to swing into Munster’s ruck support lines to help their jackals compete on the floor.
Here’s a good example; Ben Arous makes the tackle and swings around the corner into the cleanout lane to give the man behind him a shot at the ball. You’ll recall Edinburgh and Cardiff using a similar tactic to great effect earlier in the season.
The latter really killed a lot of Munster’s phase work and it highlighted an inability to plot phases together in a coherent way. It’s easy to blame the 10 for this, but Conor Murray’s work in the first half fell well below his stellar standards.
Munster had all the ball – and that’s barely an exaggeration – but we couldn’t use it. Racing effectively scored three tries from four sequences of possession in the first half. It was Munster’s inefficiency and a lack of composure versus Racing’s ultra-accurate use of possession and excellent decision making.
If you want an idea of how Munster lost, it’s probably that sentence.
When Munster got turned off a 5-metre scrum right before halftime, you got a real sense that the jig was up. That moment – again, built off Racing’s ability to disrupt our clean out lanes post tackle – seemed decisive and it was the last in a succession of winning moments for the Parisiens.
Where Racing were incisive, Munster were blunt. They scored tries with massive bursts of forward energy. They attacked with relentless 8 man mauling – that worked for them in Paris – and pods of three heavier carriers to generate quick ball.
Look at the build-up to the second try;
One pod – hit, recycle, quick ball. Lambie stitches the ball to the next pod – hit, recycle, quick ball. Lambie gets the ball into Vakatawa’s hands with numbers outside him, a power steps beats Murray on the inside shoulder and it’s simple rugby from there. A sickener. Munster dominated the ball up until this point but were punished on Racing’s second possession with two good, quick phases. Compare that calm, clinical phase work with Munster’s work here;
Keatley didn’t want the ball – he was screaming for it to go right where Munster had attacking numbers – but he got it anyway and shot a panicked drop-goal. Scannell would have another chop off a drop goal a few minutes later. Why did he do it? Well, when he got the ball, Racing were already blitzing so he could ship the ball left – where there was a defensive overlap and live risk of a breakaway try – or he could run right, where he’d be hit behind the gain line and run the risk of being isolated and turned over as the forwards try to get back around the corner to support him.
We didn’t have a good enough structure at key moments and when there’s no structure, you need composure and when you don’t have that – you’re in trouble.
When we were 24-3 down – from another efficient series of Racing phases – the opportunities kept coming but the execution wasn’t there.
That Munster came back to add respectability in the second half shows well for their grit but the tries were too hard to come by and the lead they allowed to build insurmountable.
Again – the frustrating thing was that Racing eased off in the second half. Whether it was complacency or the exertions of the first half, or both; Munster had chances. Racing began to overfold on midfield rucks and that left exploitable space. We finally scored in the 62nd minute after one disallowed Marshall try, two thrusts held up over the line, a fair few Racing infringements and numerous 5m phases.
Marshall would maul over another before Conway would add a third with the clock ticking red. It was too little, too late. We didn’t kick into the #13 channel until late in the game and the space we found there will frustrate on review but we can have no complaints about the result.
Racing 92 won the game with a decisive, powerful opening 30 minutes that left Munster with a mountain to climb. They are deserved finalists and a good club that is playing like the sum of their parts – a scary proposition given the stars they’ve accumulated there.
As for Munster, there’s nothing but disappointment. We can talk about “lessons being learned” but the only real lesson from this game is that we have to be better. They have to handle the pressure better, they have to take their chances better, and they have to manage their energy and tactical use of possession in games of this magnitude better.
Getting comprehensively beaten like Saracens last season was easier to take in a way – Munster were never really in that game with any vigour. This game will be all the harder to stomach as the days’ tick by because of the nature of the scores we conceded and, more importantly, the plethora of scores and big moments we left behind when it counted.
Forget about six lost semi-finals since 2009. Last season at this stage, the squad weren’t good enough. This season we were capable – look at all the opportunities after 7-0 – but we failed to convert when it counted.
The brutal fact of the matter is that Munster were good enough to win this game but couldn’t get the job done. We started badly once again and our inability to manage the opening quarter has been a consistent failure this season. Look at this game, look at Toulon, look at game in the U-Arena and look at Leinster in Thomond Park. Four big games that started poorly and only one ended with a W, and that with some late heroics. We’re finishing games well enough – for the most part – but we’re leaving ourselves way, way too much to do at times and it’ll have to change.
Let’s not pretend that losing Farrell & Cloete during the Six Nations window – the two men Munster signed to add to our firepower in knock-out rugby games like this – wasn’t a massive factor or that Bleyendaal and Taute weren’t badly missed, but injuries happen to every side. We have to adapt better.
If last season’s exit from Europe was a highlight of our power shortcomings, this season’s exit was a highlight of where we have to go from a game and energy management perspective. It’ll have to be addressed and will be, I’m sure, but until it is there’ll be days like this I feel.
When Munster watch this game back, they’ll be angry. Furious, in fact.
I’ll show you in more detail where I think Munster went wrong on TRK Premium this week.
As per usual, players are rated based on their time on the pitch, if they were playing notably out of position, and on the overall curve of the team performance.
Overall, this was a collectively poor display.
Neither of our halfbacks played particularly well and that was a constant source of trouble for maximising our field position and even basics like passing and kicking were below what we’d expect.
The lineout wasn’t great in key moments and while, statistically, it wasn’t far behind Racing’s it wasn’t reliable for us when we needed it. That was disappointing, given how good it’s been generally against Racing in the past. Defensively, I thought Racing duplicated a lot of their work from the U-Arena in their maul set-ups and alignments. That was high risk, given the cardio demands, but it paid off for them.
My best performers on the day were probably Sam Arnold and Simon Zebo but there’s not much joy in that. When the key part of the game was being decided, there were no impressive Munster performers and while we certainly could have one, we decisively second best on the day.
The sky certainly isn’t falling though, despite the searing hot takes you’ll read this week. Munster can be much better than this. The question is – will it be this season? That remains to be seen. Either way, I can’t fault their grit and effort. Neither should you.
The journey in Europe ends for another year. That’ll be a familiar feeling to anyone with a long enough memory, but the XP earned today will be valuable all the same. Munster do need changes in personnel in some key positions, both starting and replacement – that much is clear – but I’m proud of the way they managed a difficult season up until this point.
The PRO14 will have to do now but we’ll need to be a world better than we were today to come close. At least we know what not to do and sometimes that can be enough to get the wheel turning in your favour.