Thanks to a great win by Connacht at the Sportsground in Galway on Friday night over fourth placed Ospreys, Munster and Scarlets both knew the victorious team would move up to 4th place this weekend when they played each other in Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli on Saturday. However after a disappointing performance by Munster they remain stuck in 6th position, 5 points adrift of the top 4. The mood amongst the Dublin branch of supporters club who had gathered at Break for the Border was pretty sombre by the final quarter. You know things are bad when people are looking forward to the final whistle to put an end to the tortuous viewing.
Munster welcomed back Donncha O’Callaghan and Ronan O’Gara, released from the Ireland camp to help them prepare for their potential starting roles for Ireland next Sunday against Scotland. Coach Rob Penney kept faith with many of the youngsters who had impressed against Edinburgh – the centre partnership of JJ Hanrahan and Ivan Dineen and second row Ian Nagle – while Ian Keatley moved to fullback shifting Denis Hurley to the wing while Stander, O’Donnell and Butler provided a good ball carrying back row. Scarlets also welcomed back three of their Welsh internationals.
Munster started well winning 2 penalties in the opening ten minutes but neither were converted into points. The first looked a bit optimistic as it was from just about half way while the second was definitely in range but came back off the post. Instead it was Scarlets who got on the scoreboard first and dominated the rest of the first half which they won 9-3. There was still hope for an improvement in the second half as has become a habit for Munster this season, but Scarlets continued to control the game well, taking their points tally to 18 while Munster did not score again till the closing minute when Denis Hurley touched down which O’Gara, with blood dripping down his neck and a large bandage covering most of his head after getting a cut during the 2nd half, converted for the extra 2 points to bring the final score to 18-10 and Munster left Wales without even a losing bonus point to show for their endeavours.
The most impressive Munster player on the pitch was Mike Sherry, who (despite spending ten minutes in the sinbin) played well, blocking down 2 Scarlets kicks, he was busy in the loose, carrying and tackling, his lineout darts were accurate and he led from the front as befitted his status as Captain for the game.
Discipline was a problem, particularly with the excellent kicking of Owen Williams who punished Munster’s transgressions with 5 penalties and a drop goal, including one from 51m out. By comparison Ronan O’Gara missed 3 / 5 shots on goal and while he has not started a match since the Edinburgh European Cup game (Jan 13th) you would not expect that to affect his goalkicking whatever about his game management. The referee was annoyed about players questioning his calls and after a comment apparently by Donncha he marched the Munster players back 10m and made the harsh penalty awarded for a pushing exchange between Johne Murphy and one of the Scarlets players even more kickable by Williams.
Scarlets deserved their win, they showed more flair in attack and more aggression in the contact area, often isolating the Munster player and earning a turnover. By comparison Munster huffed and puffed but failed to click. There were some individual highlights like Dineen’s break up the centre or Murphy down the wing or O’Donnell carrying 3 Scarlets players as he drove through the defence, Nagle was again very accomplished in the lineout. The defence held firm and the scrum seemed to be dominate, albeit one good attacking chance was lost when the ball was not controlled well. Overall there were too many mistakes and failures in execution and while the younger players will have gained valuable experience this felt like a missed opportunity.
I did notice John Ryan came on at loose head this week after playing tight head last week. According to the Irish Independent his ability to play both sides of the scrum could mean that Wian du Preez will be released early to enable Botha to be retained due to the IRFU restrictions on non Irish qualified players… It was also interesting to hear how well Peter Stringer is playing on loan to Bath, they even serenaded him with “The Fields of Athenry” apparently. We could have done with his experience and organisational skills this weekend.
So next week Munster are away to Treviso and given that the Italian team could call up 14 of the Treviso squad there is a good chance of a win there before taking on Ospreys at home the following weekend in Limerick, which will be a key game if we are to have any chance of moving up the table. So mathematically it is still possible to qualify for the semi finals at the end of the League campaign but tonight’s loss, coupled with the 2 home losses in Musgrave earlier this season could well prove costly to our ambitions.
MUNSTER: I Keatley; D Hurley, I Dineen, JJ Hanrahan, J Murphy; R O’Gara, D Williams; W du Preez, M Sherry, BJ Botha; D O’Callaghan, I Nagle; CJ Stander, T O’Donnell, P Butler. Replacements: D Varley, J Ryan, S Archer, B Holland, S Dougall, C Sheridan, D Barnes, C Laulala.
SCARLETS: G Owen; L Williams, G Maule, A Warren, A Fenby; O Williams, A Davies; P John, E Phillips, J Adriaanse; G Earle, J Snyman; R McCusker (capt), J Turnbull, K Murphy. Replacements: K Myhill, R Jones, S Lee, J Ball, J Edwards, G Davies, A Thomas, N Reynolds.