Fine margins. Key moments. These are the clichés that invariably get bandied about in the aftermath of a narrow defeat but it’s the truth when analysing Munster’s loss to Toulouse. You don’t get a finer margin or more of a key moment than a penalty whizzing past the wrong side of the post by a matter of centimetres in the final kick of the game.
The fact we are talking about such fine margins against the European and French champions highlights how far this Munster side has come, however, and how far they have the potential to go. As my father put it to me, Saturday’s game was ‘a tantalising look at what we can look forward to next season’.
The main criticism I have had of Munster in recent years is their reversion to a conservative, risk averse, less ambitious game plan when facing opposition that is stronger on paper.
There have been repeated examples of it against teams like Saracens, Racing and Leinster. It was hard not to draw the conclusion that Munster were setting out not to lose against these teams, rather than trying to outplay and beat them.
Clearly, that wasn’t the case on Saturday.
Munster gave it to Toulouse from the very start, neutralising nearly every threat they faced, matching them physically and tactically and playing excellent, free flowing rugby to the delight of everyone watching.
There were two main prongs of the Toulouse attack that Munster needed to prepare for. The first was the sheer size and power of their pack, who batter and bruise their way over the gain line every weekend to sow chaos in defence and create space for their backline to attack. The second was the speed and ease with which Toulouse can move the ball from touchline to touchline under pressure. Much like the French national side, Toulouse rely on being devastatingly clinical when the slightest opportunity presents itself out wide.
On both fronts, Munster performed extremely well. While the colossal Toulouse tight five launched assault after assault on Munster’s defensive line, they got limited reward for their efforts. In fact, this was an area where Munster clearly won the battle. Like they did against Exeter a few weeks ago, Munster caused mayhem at the breakdown.
Peter O’Mahony was the star of that show – forcing a remarkable four turnovers himself – but Wycherley, Kendellen, O’Donoghue and many others made life miserable for their opponents all afternoon. It was telling that after 91 minutes of rugby, Munster had forced 19 turnovers compared to Toulouse’s five.
Killing their momentum like this meant Toulouse couldn’t do what they like to do, which is build and build for ten or 15 phases and eventually find a weak seam to exploit. While Toulouse still scored a couple of lovely tries through winger Matthis Lebel, they had a fraction of the opportunities to break the line that they are accustomed to having.
Lebel’s second try in the 66th minute was a coaching masterclass. Toulouse knew that given the size of their pack and strength of their maul, Munster had to commit bodies immediately to stop any momentum. Winning the ball towards the tail of the lineout and setting up a maul left Niall Scannell defending the fringe on his own. Hooker Mauvaka peeled around the back at pace to sit him down and deliver a beautiful no-look pass to the seam on his inside shoulder for Lebel to burst through.
If you watch it again, you can see second row Joe Tekori moving up the outside of the Toulouse maul, pretending to engage, but really ensuring that none of the Munster players can break off and get to Scannell’s inside shoulder. Teams are so well prepared defensively at this stage of the competition that you rarely see strike plays like that come off as planned. But this was done perfectly and all you can do is tip your hat to the execution.
One visible point of difference between the sides was the strength in depth the French men had on the bench. Baille, Mauvaka, Ainu’u and Tekori entered the fray between the 45th and 63rd minutes.
The four players weigh an average of 125kg. They are unleashed to give their side more go forward ball and while they had less success than usual in that regard, the scrum was where it told.
It was devastating for Munster to concede two scrum penalties on their own ball at crucial moments in the latter stages of the match. The first in their own 22 allowed Toulouse to draw level with five minutes remaining in ordinary time; the second in front of the Toulouse posts surrendered a brilliant attacking position with five minutes left in extra time.
In addition to dealing with most of what Toulouse threw at them, Munster looked menacing in attack all afternoon. Johnny Sexton’s trade mark wrap around has become synonymous with Leinster’s offensive rugby over the years.
We all know it – he hits the 12, the 13 runs a hard line and he gets the ball returned to him out the back to run into space. It’s simple but incredibly effective. Munster showed us their own version of that on Saturday.
80% of their first phase attack went to de Allende – either directly from scrum-half or through Carbery’s hands – with Farrell running a hard line and Carbery out the back. When you have a centre partnership the size of de Allende and Farrell, it’s a very hard play to deal with. De Allende is a carrying threat on his own. Farrell is a threat on the crash ball. Carbery is a threat out the back. Two defenders have to account for three possible outcomes and Munster got good reward from this all day.
The clearest example of it working perfectly as intended was when Farrell was taken out off the ball by his opposite number Fouyssac in the 57th minute to give Munster a ten point lead. That is what happens when you force a defender to make a split second decision like that. This approach worked so well, in fact, that my question is why it wasn’t taken more systematically before now?
It is one of the best and easiest ways to utilise having two powerful, ball playing centres in the middle of the pitch, but it isn’t something we have seen all that much of, which is particularly disappointing given that de Allende will be moving on in the coming weeks.
Munster have had to be content with losing valiantly in recent years. After Saturday, that is no longer the case. While they were desperately unlucky not to come out on top, they were in a position to win and didn’t quite make it happen. This might sound harsh but believe me, players would much prefer to be analysing moments where they could have won the game than trying to find positives after coming up 10 or 15 points short.
Most people would point to missed kicks or drop goal attempts. For me, the biggest opportunity came in the fifth minute of extra time. After a Jenkins turnover on the right hand side, Casey moved to infield to Loughman, who popped to Aherne on the charge. He nearly breaks the line, tighthead David Ainu’u just about hauls him down and Munster have Toulouse on the ropes. When Ainu’u reloads, he is required to stay on the ground but actually stands up in the passing channel, blocking Casey’s pass in an offside position.
If Casey flings the ball off him, the referee is obliged to give a penalty to Munster in front of the posts. Casey double takes though and while referee Luke Pierce should still give advantage, he lets play continue. Munster kick the ball away and the opportunity is missed. It’s a moment that was easily missed but one that could have give Munster the win. Fine margins. Key moments.
While the Munster players will feel this one for a few days, they have announced to the rugby world that they are back with a bang. I live in another country and even I can feel the shift in atmosphere that has happened in the last few weeks. There is optimism aplenty and the excitement around Mike Prendergast’s confirmation as attack coach, along with the likely arrival of Denis Leamy in defence, mean everyone is licking their lips at what the future holds.
And there is plenty to be excited about, particularly looking at the young talents that are establishing themselves as the real deal. Special mention must be given to Alex Kendellen, who was the standout performer of the day. For a 21-year-old back row to play 100 minutes at that level and have the impact he did was incredible. He didn’t just do his job – he was getting into the faces of the Toulouse men and creating the niggle that everyone else feeds off. Not at all dissimilar to what Peter O’Mahony was like when he arrived on the scene.
The future is bright, and the buzz is back. I dare say the trophy drought might be coming to an end.