If it was just one or two things, it would be easy.
You could look at one or two players or a set piece, or the referee, and come up with a nicely packaged reason for why Munster lost a third semi-final in three years this past weekend. Truth be told, Munster didn’t even play poorly.
But here we are none the less; clapping another team off the field on their way to a European final while we head home to rethink.
It’s disappointing, but you have to be realistic too. As fans – and we’re all fans, even the lads with laptops in the stands – I think we have a tendency to narrativize our sports and feel disappointment when the real world doesn’t match up with the story we had in our heads. Munster, beaten by Saracens two years ago, rising up to beat Saracens in the rematch? It would be perfect. But the real world doesn’t operate like that all the time.
In the aftermath of Munster’s last odyssey to the summit of European rugby – 2006 to 2008 – you can look at each failure along the way as an inevitable building block towards something greater but that isn’t always how it goes. We’re in the middle of this Munster squad’s story right now but it remains to be seen if this volume of the Munster story ends in a European Cup. Are we better than last year? Yes – but just not close enough to beat, for me, a better side than the Racing 92 we faced in Bordeaux last season.
This time around, I think Munster would have beaten that Racing side but that’s unimportant. All we know for now is that we’re still not quite where we need to be, at least not when it counted on Saturday.
There’s no shame in that, but it’s not what this squad wants.
There are, at the very least, 16 other teams that are killing themselves to get where we are now but we’re sick of it. There are no medals for exiting at the last four, just disappointment and stinging, hard to swallow lessons.
Where do we go from here?
To know that, we have to know why this game didn’t work.
Here’s a decent example, featuring one minute of action off a lineout. The sequence ended in a Munster penalty but look at how much effort each phase required;
Ruck after ruck, there is a big heavy body to shunt off the ball. That draws our numbers out of the offensive line and makes each following phase more difficult to manage. That sequence could have been taken directly from Ireland vs England back in February and why not? Saracens had much the same personnel in the pack – Billy and Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, George Kruis – and the result was similar enough to that opening game of the Six Nations. We had to work harder for our ground than Saracens had to work for theirs and I think that’s the main takeaway from this game.
Even when we had a bit of momentum, the sheer weight of Saracens pressure over the ball – be it either Vunipola, Lamositele, Itoje or Kruis – narrowed our structure to try to compensate in support of the carrier.
Here’s a decent example three minutes in and six phases into a kick return sequence.
Wray wins a turnover on a centre-field ruck off a Farrell carry.
When the ball came back to Farrell in this instance, we had a few options to go with;
He could carry himself, go with Conway on the outside shoulder or sling a pass to Ryan, who could, possibly, release O’Donoghue. It isn’t about Farrell taking a wrong option and getting turned over – he carried well enough and it was a decent option from him – the problem was that all this was happening inside Saracens’ defensive umbrella.
For me, this attacking work needed to be happening wider, with a breaking threat from first receiver to pressurise the spacing of Saracens’ line speed.
This is a decent structure but we needed to be having it here;
Much of our attacking structure on multi-phase was a mixture
If I was to characterise a lot of our work with ball in hand, it would be that we gave Saracens a little too much respect when we had possession. Our shorter phase structure showed our concern for our offensive breakdown and even then, I thought we weren’t quite at the edge we needed.
Look at the way Saracens attacked their first and second phase possession here;
A lot of our game would have been based on stealing a few of these balls to give us field position and lift the siege but we couldn’t get the results we wanted – Saracens couldn’t afford to have done to them what we’ve done to everyone else this season by Beirne and O’Mahony, and by hook or by crook, they stopped it.
In a way, Saracens’ dared Garces to keep penalising them for breakdown infringements but they knew going in that they’d be able to get away with an awful lot, rolled the dice and won big time. We would have known that Garces wasn’t going to ref the breakdown for most of the game and then ref the tiniest incidents too – just like he did against Exeter both times this season – but the two or three decision we needed to go our way didn’t and the game started to slowly edge out of our grasp.
When we couldn’t reliably lift Saracens’ phase pressure on their possession and, on our own ball, we looked a little lost once we went out a few phases after a set piece or kick return. We weren’t winning a lot of collisions up front, which doesn’t help, but I thought we looked pretty static from first receiver on a lot of key phases and it helped Saracens’ defensive read.
Have a look at this sequence;
This play off the scrum is designed to stretch out Saracens and attempt to isolate some tight five forwards on the reverse play to then buy an overfold in defence from Saracens off the centre-field ruck position. To start with, it’s a literal chain of passes, about as basic as it gets, but it doesn’t need to be overly complex.
When we secure the ruck and look to come back across, Saracens can hammer up on Beirne and Kleyn off Bleyendaal’s pass because they don’t have to worry about Bleyendaal as a breaking threat as he links the pass. That wasn’t the plan – for a break off first receiver – but it’s nice to have that option there to hold the defensive press and keep numbers away from the target.
Again though, that’s not that big a problem in this instance.
It works out despite the fumble thanks to Kilcoyne’s recovery but I think the main target here was Bleyendaal to Beirne with a tip on to Kleyn to hit up the middle but how it worked out wasn’t so bad.
This is pretty much what we would have wanted. Saracens mostly shifted to one side and some isolation opportunities on the reverse.
When we go, I think you’ll see where we missed Carbery and Earls.
I think with Carbery’s pace and one on one ability, we can sit down Lozowski and attack Vunipola on the inside shoulder or Barritt on the outside shoulder. If Lozowski has to worry about his spacing, we’ll keep him away from the flanks for enough time to give our guys a chance to work.
As it happens though, Lozowski can drift onto Sweetnam while Barritt drifts out in support of the winger.
Sweetnam wants to freeze Barritt – that’s why he doesn’t give the pass sooner – but it’s Lozowski who kills this planned phase play for us by getting across to our overload. If he’s just two footsteps back, I think we isolate the winger and put Haley or O’Donoghue under the sticks.
Those moments were writ large on what ball we had.
I suppose perspective is needed.
Do Munster need a little more firepower when it comes to carrying the ball in the middle of the field? I would say so, yes. Maybe in the front row, maybe somewhere else, but it came up a little short against Saracens here, as it did last year against Racing.
Do Munster need a little more structure and guile on multi-phase play? Probably, yeah. Munster haven’t gone backwards but I don’t think our attacking work has progressed to the level we needed to beat this Saracens team.
Did we badly miss Carbery and Earls? Of course – you want your best players playing in these games and being down our #1 flyhalf and our most dangerous outside back will mean your less effective with the small chances.
It would be easy to pick out a group of underperforming players and throw the fault at them but it wasn’t about Munster playing badly – it was about the level that Saracens were playing at, the options they had and how we managed to deal with them.
The margins aren’t as huge as they seem on the face of it but those last few percentage points are the biggest ones to close at the top end of European Rugby.
We know that Munster are a top end side but the glass ceiling of the semi-final stage seems to be the limit for the squad as it currently stands. That isn’t to say that beating Saracens here was impossible – with Carbery and Earls we’d have been closer, in my opinion – but when they played as well as they did, with the power, intelligence and ability to convert pressure that having eight or nine Lions in your squad gives you, we’d have needed something very, very special. They are farther along the road than we are and, while we have improved since 2017, so have they.
There’s no shame in that but it won’t be enough for this Munster side.
Maybe there need to be some coaching additions to freshen things up, maybe there needs to be some extra beef brought in, maybe they need a bit of luck when it comes to injuries to key guys – maybe it’s all of those things. But something has to change if Munster are to get beyond this stage.
The Wally Ratings: Saracens (N)
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. DNP means the player did not feature and N/A means they weren’t on the pitch long enough to warrant a fair rating given the way the game went.
I don’t think anyone played really badly here. We were made to look average enough for the most part and that just won’t cut it against this Saracens side.
I can’t fault anyone’s work rate, or tackle count, or desire – we just weren’t at the level we needed to be. Our kick-chase on both sides of the ball wasn’t great but it wasn’t really a liability either.
Chris Farrell was my stand out player. He was everywhere – nuking guys in defence, carrying all kinds of ball and even challenging their back three with kicks from hand, something we didn’t do enough of in this game. He was outstanding and showed how badly we missed him at this point last season.
The season isn’t over – far from it – and how we react to this defeat will be very telling as to where the squad is mentally as another knock out series in the PRO14 comes over the horizon.
We’ve improved, just like we improved last season, but we need to make bigger jumps to catch up with the Leinster’s and Saracens’ of this world, who are just further down the road than we are with regards to coaching and core player consistency. Can we make that jump? That’s where belief comes into play – on both sides of the hoarding.
There’s much to cover in this game and I’ll be doing that in TRK Premium all week long with GIF and Video Articles.