Belfast Telegraph

Midfield is the crisis area for Munster with a new general needed at out-half

By Tony Ward

For the second week running the best team in Europe found a way across the winning line when it really mattered.

Yes, it was tight and exciting in the dying moments, but unlike Bilbao the previous week, I felt Saturday's Munster-Leinster Pro14 semi-final lacked quality. It's probably going against the trend of popular opinion given the 16-15 scoreline in Leinster's favour, but this semi-final, specifically from a Munster perspective, I found disappointing in the extreme.

A damp squib at the end of a very mixed season in which, if we're honest, Munster flattered to deceive.

Of course, the Rassie Erasmus carry on in mid-season didn't help and Johann van Graan has done as well as he could in the circumstances, but as a squad set to establish their own winning identity in Munster rugby lore this unit is still some way short.

Quite why they are signing another back row forward, regardless of his place of origin, beggars belief. They are bordering on weak in a number of areas but back row is most certainly not one. I have little doubt that Arno Botha will prove a powerful back row signing, but between us and all harm, why?

What does that say to Jack O'Donoghue, Conor Oliver, Dave O'Callaghan, Jack O'Sullivan and heaven knows who else coming through the system?

And as for the call to let Robin Copeland go to Connacht, I think yesterday's 70-minute showing again emphasises that folly for what it is. Mark my words, Munster's loss will prove to be Connacht's gain and I sincerely hope that proves to be the case.

But of all the problems Munster have right now, the most pressing, unsurprisingly, are not up front. Tadhg Beirne's signing is a pragmatic piece of work for a number of reasons and while Leinster might be dominating the front row in five of the six matchday positions, Munster have little to worry about in the scrum sector. Yet again in the RDS that set-piece more than held its own.

Behind, they happen to have the best scrum-half in the world at this point in time. But beyond one to nine, save for the back three, and even that too has a clear and obvious complication with Simon Zebo leaving for Racing, there is at best a lack of clarity going forward.

The inaccuracy and lack of precision when passing on Saturday was abysmal. The return of Chris Farrell should help although what we have seen him produce for Joe Schmidt as a central link has been marked by its absence thus far for Munster.

And just for the record, I do not share the same optimism in relation to Jaco Taute who, while brave to a fault, is a different type of centre entirely. Zebo will be missed and don't let anyone kid you otherwise. But Andrew Conway, when given continuity in selection (at full back), will fill that void while Keith Earls, Darren Sweetnam and Alex Wootton, for whom Paris was a blip, offer substantial alternatives on the wing. The nub of the issue and the most pressing problem is midfield, and specifically the make up at ten, twelve and thirteen.

Think of Ronan O'Gara, Rua Tipoki and Lifeimi Mafi in 2008. Or to have players of the quality of Mike Mullins and Paul Warwick in that mix. Oh to have a Warwick at out-half now.

In previewing the Leinster game I focused on JJ Hanrahan and the need for patience as well as assertiveness in the pivotal position despite the boast of three out-halves.

In reality that is most definitely not the case. I want Hanrahan to succeed but as I suggested on Saturday it was on days like this that O'Gara stood tallest - but in May 2018 the jury was out in terms of filling that massive void.

It is still out and despite Hanrahan and Ian Keatley's best efforts either side of the interval at the RDS, Munster have a gaping void at out-half and unless it is filled rapidly they are going nowhere in terms of making finals or more to the point, winning silverware.

Keatley has been a loyal if inconsistent servant to Munster despite some unfair suggestions to the contrary.

I therefore repeat what I mooted some time ago, and it relates to the Leinster full-back on Saturday.

Joey Carbery had another good game but were I him I would be looking down rather than up or out the road for the sake of career fulfilment - and with it the most effective route to the very top and that green No 10 shirt he covets so much.

It would be the ideal fit with a move from Leinster to Munster benefiting both player and province immeasurably at this point in time.

And while it might be of little relevance, Athy isn't exactly a million miles from the Munster border.

As one who has been down that road, I find it almost impossible to articulate what makes the game there so special.

I am so proud of my Harold's Cross roots but for rugby culture, Limerick rules. Available for advice any time, Joey.

Belfast Telegraph

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