This had all the sizzle of some thrilling rugby and top-class scoring but with real steak too in a bonus-point win that secured a playoff run and top level European rugby at the very least.
Stand of Opposition
There were good vibes floating on the breeze as I walked out of Musgrave Park on Friday night. Maybe it was the Bank Holiday weekend, maybe it was the knowledge that the Ed Sheeran discourse might finally, finally be over or maybe it was Munster sticking a highly entertaining bonus-point win on Cardiff during a highly entertaining back and forth contest on a balmy evening in Cork.
Whatever comes after this game will go a long way to defining the season. After the Bank Holiday, Munster will play Toulouse in the Aviva Stadium in a Heineken Cup quarter-final. Win that, and a semi-final will take place a week later against either Leinster or Leicester. A week after that, we play Leinster in the Aviva Stadium in the final regular-season game of the season with real business still to be decided. A losing bonus point in that game will guarantee a home quarter-final at the very least. A win, plus some good results elsewhere, could see us finishing second – with the possibility of a home semi-final along with it – but it’s so tight at the top of the URC that making any predictions of what the log will look like at the end of the 18th round is something of a fool’s errand.
Whatever happens, the next four games will define the 2021/22 season and Van Graan/Larkham’s tenure at this club. That’s the pressure that comes with coaching a team of Munster’s stature. Ideally, when the end of the season arrives, all of your last few games are do or die, win or bust affairs with little respite in between and the pressure cranking with each passing match week. That’s when you know things are where they need to be. Any release of that pressure that isn’t lifting a trophy is a failure, but that’s the gift and curse of being at a club with the expectations of Munster Rugby.
There’s a joke in the NBA called “1-2-3 Cancun” that, essentially, makes fun of the players/teams that have checked out mentally with a few games left to go in the season. They are already on their holidays but still clocking in for games, and it shows. At times, I got that impression from Cardiff before and during the game, which is somewhat at odds with their excellent opening 20 minutes. Their warmup looked a little flat watching it live but they started the game really well and looked a little energised by the early scuffle after Munster conceded a penalty after a counter-ruck. As the game progressed, however, they seemed to drift in and out of the contest as a collective.
Whatever about Cardiff’s collective mental state, however, this was just a really entertaining game to experience live. I wrote before the game about Cardiff’s possible status as a bogey team and the first 20 minutes were a good expression of why. I’ve said for a while that they are one of the most underrated attacking sides in the URC and I stand by that. My contention was that their 3-3-1 shape, when utilised correctly with Jarrod Evans at #10, is incredibly difficult to defend and you could see why here, especially as they rolled off their lineout.
That Cardiff lineout was the key part of the early game. Before the match, I spoke about the possibility of giving Cardiff a lot of lineout possession with the idea that, as the worst lineout team in the competition to date, there were real gains to be had there if you could upset their flow of possession. Essentially, you would kick for touch if and when Cardiff kicked directly into your 22 with the idea that there were turnovers to be had with sufficient counter-jump pressure. The downside to that is that if you give Cardiff lineout opportunities and don’t stop them, you open up bad matchups directly from the setpiece and in the phases afterwards. You don’t want to be defending Cardiff for extended periods of time in and around your 22 because their attacking structure gives them lots of options and, in Rey Lee-Lo, they have one of the most dangerous edge runners you could want to find soft spots on a defensive line. When you give Cardiff edge gains inside your 10m line, it’s an invitation for trouble and, in a free-scoring opening half an hour, that’s exactly what happened.
Munster conceded two penalties in dangerous areas – one off a kick exit and one-off a lineout – and that allowed Cardiff to kick deep into our half and, from the resulting field position, they were able to stress our edges in areas of the field where, if you’re not careful, you’ll leak tries.
That could have been pretty damaging if Munster weren’t able to fire back directly with seriously impressive multi-phase tries that showcased some of the best handling and offensive adaption that I’ve seen this season. For the second game in a row, we’ve ran a game with a PPC rating of higher than 1.4. We’ve seen elements of this style at different points in the campaign and it’s plainly associated with dry ball, hard track conditions. When Munster were being praised for an “attacking evolution” at the start of the season – most notably after the Scarlets game but also after the home wins over the Sharks and Stormers – it was in the same conditions as we saw in Musgrave Park on Friday night. When the ball is consistently dry, Munster have shown consistently that they will attempt to play with expansivity unless there’s a prevailing physical disadvantage.
The criticism of Munster’s perceived “style” back in the post-Omicron months was always looking at things from the wrong angle. The problem wasn’t that Munster always play conservative rugby all the time – because anyone who’s watched Munster week to week this season would know that isn’t true. The issue is that we tend to be a little over-reactive to inclement weather conditions and a little too respectful of physical disadvantages which can, when combined together, lead Munster to playing extraordinarily low-risk rugby that features a lot of kicking and a lot of territory management.
This came to a head against Castres and Connacht in late December and early January. Against Castres, their physicality and conservative kicking game combined with the weather and our own low-cohesion post-South Africa lead us to play an arms-length, low error kicking game of our own. Against Connacht, the greasy, windy conditions along with the same low-cohesion, post-COVID group we used against Castres that we were desperately trying to build minutes into, lead to a dour, dismal loss where we barely fired a shot. That game was a crystallisation of Van Graan’s Munster for many critics but for the wrong reasons. Too many pundits were blinded by the trite “South African coach just wants to kick the ball” trope when what they should have seen was “Van Graan and Larkham are sometimes too reactive and context dependent for their own good”.
When the conditions are right, Munster have consistently played ball. Earlier in the season against the Ospreys, Munster went “off-script” and played a 1.4+ Pass Per Carry game in very poor weather conditions. Guess what happened? Munster made a tonne of unforced errors, a tonne of turnovers and lost a game they should probably have won.
This was the last game before the South African tour.
When you consider the cohesion recovery process post-Omicron and the dour winter weather which has always, for multiple seasons, limited the scope of Munster’s attacking expansivity under Van Graan and Larkham, is it that much of a surprise that Munster have looked far more expansive and inventive in the last few weeks after the Six Nations when the players have had a long block of time together right at the time that the pitches are hardening up?
And it was visible again here on multiple attacking sequences where Munster were genuinely undefendable in spells, even with Conor Murray’s delivery acting as something of a handbrake at times in the first half.
People often talk about wanting the game against Toulouse to be a washout, for wind and rain to be something of a leveller but I completely disagree. Bad conditions plus a size differential are a recipe for us to go into our shells and play a tighter, more conservative game that we’ll probably lose. I’m going to pray to the Rugby Gods for a hard pitch and a dry ball. That’ll suit Toulouse but, by God, it’ll suit us too and I think with the right selection, we can frighten the life out of the Kings of Europe as this club have done to all the old Kings for decades until we were Kings ourselves.
To the Brave & the Faithful, Nothing Is Impossible, remember that? This saying came to mean that Munster would fight and grind you into the dirt and all your flair would count for nothing in the 2000s. In 2022 it means something else, I think. If we’re brave enough to back the attacking work we saw here and last week against Ulster, I genuinely believe we can beat Toulouse and turn Europe upside down in doing so.
They think they know us – Leinster, pundits, other fans, even some of our own – but I genuinely believe they don’t have a clue. I know there is greatness in this squad and while a game against Cardiff isn’t the place to show it, next week is.
This game was business and executed as such with the kind of panache that sends people home sweating and thinking about the next time they can get to a game.
This coming Saturday is not business. It’s destiny. Destiny isn’t set in stone as people think. You can shape it to your will but your will has to be strong. This young team have the feel of a side about to go on a great journey and they’ll need a strong will to get to where they want to go. I think they have that strength of will. All they need to do is to remember who they are and who they play for.
The rest will follow.
Jean Kleyn has been a cornerstone player for Munster over the last few seasons. Ever since his arrival at the club in 2016, when Kleyn has been fit, we have been a better, more effective side. My personal pet conspiracy theory is that if Kleyn had been fit for the latter half of 2016/17, Munster would have won a PRO12 title at the very least. I’ll never be able to prove it, of course, but what I can prove is just how good Kleyn was for his time on the field in this game. He was brutally effective at the breakdown, impactful in the carry and has improved his handling beyond all recognition. This was serious all-court stuff from Kleyn and if we are to win something this season, it’ll be with a fit Jean Kleyn leading the way. Outstanding. ★★★★★
Craig Casey might only have come onto the field midway through the second half but he did so with a point to prove. Guys like Casey – all tempo, fizz and foot-to-the-floor scrumhalf play – can get labelled as “game changers” in such a way that they often get selected on the bench as a changeup option in the second half. Need to chase a game? Bring on the pace guy. Need to take advantage of tired legs from 65+ minutes? Get the pace guy. How long though until you decide to play with the foot-to-the-floor from minute one, rather than minute sixty-five?
Casey approached this game as an audition for Toulouse and he did so by showing a lot of the same qualities as Antoine Dupont, the man he wants to duel with for Munster AND for Ireland. How do you stop a young man with that ambition? You don’t. You let him at it. You let him chase his destiny, which is to win trophies for Munster, Ireland and the Lions. Craig Casey brought the kind of quality off the bench that you’d expect from a top-class scrumhalf signing. He was accurate, he was dominant, and he brought more energy than an eight pack of Red Bull guzzled after a double espresso. He scored two tries too, which is great, but I don’t judge scrumhalves on the tries they score – I judge them on the overall quality of their ruck. Your #9 becomes the personality of your team because they touch the ball more than anyone so what they do becomes you. The Munster that Casey brought with him off the bench has the stuff to frighten the life out of any side, I truly believe that. ★★★★★
Massive Mike Haley is one of the most consistent players anywhere in the game right now. Yes, anywhere in the game of Rugby Union as a whole. That sounds like hyperbole but isn’t. I’m not saying he should be starting for Ireland right now – although he should be in the wider squad at the very least if you ask me – I am saying that if you look at all the fullbacks playing in the URC, Gallagher Premiership, TOP14 and Super Rugby Pasifka :: Red Card Boogaloo, you won’t find a fullback who is so consistently solid on the defensive side of the ball.
What has often held Haley back, at least in my view, is his work on the offensive side of the ball. He has always been outstandingly good at claiming highballs, sticking last-ditch tackles and mopping up problems before they become disasters but the other side of the ball – his handling, offensive kicking and breaking on transition – was always functional, verging on decent depending on the opposition. Over the last few weeks, however, he’s really started to step up a few gears in this facet of the game and start to hurt teams when he takes the ball on a contestable or on a deep kick return. He was absolutely everything you could ask of a fullback in this game. Handling, line running, tries, defensive solidity, physicality, leadership – he was genuinely brilliant and looked like a guy ready to make the step up to the next level. ★★★★★
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.