Munster Looking Nervously Over Their Shoulders After Weekend’s Loss

Munster went into the penultimate round of the Guinness Pro14 hoping to score the win that would put them in pole position in their conference but instead an exciting last weekend of league play sees them fighting for the right just to make it into the play-offs.
Edinburgh’s impressive win over Glasgow Warriors in the first match of the Saturday double header effectively left Munster needing to beat Leinster to retain any interest in the top position on the final Conference B log. They fell tantalisingly short. They do still have an outside interest because they are five points, meaning one bonus point win behind Edinburgh, but something freaky is going to have to happen on the final weekend to wipe out Edinburgh’s big advantage in points differential for the current leaders to drop a position.
Instead of reaching for the top, Munster coach Johan van Graan and his team are now looking nervously over their shoulders at Welsh team Scarlets, who moved within range of Munster on the log with their big win over Cardiff Blues in another game on Saturday. If Scarlets win their derby against the Dragons with a bonus point at Newport this coming Saturday it will leave Munster needing to beat Connacht on Sunday if they are to go to the semi-finals.

That semi-final will be a return fixture against the Leinster team that pipped them 27-25 in an exciting game at Aviva Stadium at the weekend, something that will not sit well with Van Graan and his team as it has been some time now since they last beat Leinster. Indeed, it’s been a while since any team has beaten Leinster, who boast a 22 match winning streak across all competitions they participate in.
On another level though there was something more positive for the former Springbok assistant coach to work with. There was plenty of indication during his team’s narrow defeat that if they produce their best rugby they could just have the beating of their arch-rivals.
Indeed, had JJ Hanrahan kept his good goal-kicking form up when he had a conversion opportunity that would have levelled the scores with less than seven minutes left, the derby could well have seen Leinster’s winning run brought to an end. And given how impregnable the Leinster fortress has been in recent times, that is certainly something to cling to.

On the evidence of the Aviva Stadium derby, Munster should consider quickening up their tempo. It was when they were recycling the ball quicker and upping the pace of their game later in the second half that Munster started to trouble the previously troublesome high press Leinster defence system.

Up to just ahead of the hour mark the Leinster defence had been pressuring the Munster ball carriers into error with seeming impunity, but after that it changed, with Munster fighting back with two tries in that period and nearly wiping out what had been an 11 point deficit.
The much talked about debuts of Springbok World Cup winners RG Snyman and Damian de Allende would have been much less a talking point after the game than they were beforehand. Snyman left the field after just seven minutes after injuring his leg falling awkwardly at a lineout, and De Allende’s only notable contribution was a negative one in that his late tackle on Jonny Sexton gave Leinster the penalty that led directly to their first try.

Instead, the South African interest, in terms of players who shone, was provided in the Scottish derby that preceded the Aviva Stadium game. And it was the Edinburgh halfback duo of Nic Groom and Jaco van der Walt, neither of whom were given much publicity before the game, who led the South African charge. The latter won the man of the match award for his kicking and all-round game management but it was Groom’s brace of tries that put his team on the path to victory.

Edinburgh showed excellent form on the resumption in what was a high-quality Scottish derby that appeared to confirm the switch in the balance of rugby power in Scotland. While Edinburgh has a home semi-final to look forward to - it really is hard to see them being denied that now - and Europe beyond that, the Warriors have nothing to play for in the return derby on Friday night and will be going afterwards into an off period before the start of the 2020/2021 season.

Generally, it was a weekend that delivered on and maybe even exceeded expectations for those who have waited patiently for the PRO14 to return. The absence of crowds because of the coronavirus restrictions didn’t appear to detract from the drive and motivation of the players, who sometimes celebrated tries like they had won a final.

The aesthetic quality of the games was also generally high. There were mistakes but those were to be expected as teams returned to playing after more than five months of hiatus and without even playing a warm-up game. There were also some excellent tries, some slick passing and handling, and the games might well have been an advert for the positives that could be derived from having summer rugby in the northern hemisphere.

Weekend results

Benetton 13 Zebre 17
Scarlets 32 Cardiff Blues 12
Glasgow Warriors 15 Edinburgh 30
Leinster 27 Munster 25
Ospreys 20 Dragons 20
Connacht 26 Ulster 20

Round 15 fixtures

Edinburgh v Glasgow Warriors (Friday, 20.35)
Dragons v Scarlets (Saturday, 18.15)
Ulster v Leinster (Saturday, 20.35)
Munster v Connacht (Sunday, 16.00)
Cardiff Blues v Ospreys (Sunday, 18.00)
Zebre v Benetton (Sunday, 20.00)