Belfast Telegraph

Reality is that Munster aren't on Leinster's level

Well beaten: Munster captain Peter O'Mahony talks to his team-mates after the Boxing Day defeat to Leinster

By Tony Ward

I never like Munster losing and I'll not pretend otherwise. That said, the outcome of Tuesday's defeat by Leinster and the nature of it might just prove a blessing in disguise, ahead of Monday's visit to the Kingspan.

I say that because after two extraordinary back-to-back winning performances by Munster against Leicester in Europe, the temptation is there to bracket our two top provinces as being pretty much equal going forward.

They are not, nor have they been for some time. I make this same point again and again but when you witness the talent coming through the Leinster under-age system, specifically the schools, as I do on a weekly basis, the quality and quantity coming through is almost scary.

I say scary because it is difficult to see where they are all going to fit and let me add that there is hardly a boy playing senior schools rugby in the eastern province who does not harbour the ambition of eventually making the pro cut.

Needless to say and much like young lads chasing the English soccer dream, including many of my contemporaries growing up, it is but a very small percentage who actually make it. The vast majority in football return home with confidence as well as ambition shattered.

It is for that reason, more than any other, that I support David Nucifora in his all encompassing role with the IRFU when spreading the talent, particularly in our most densely populated province, around.

The increasing movement of developing players to the other three provinces is hugely welcome because I can assure you that what you are seeing now through the Joey Carberys, Dan Leavys and Jordan Larmours of this world is coming through the Leinster schools system in their droves.

That is fact not opinion from one closely involved in the under-age game.

Nor is it confined to Leinster but in terms of numbers in or around the metropolis the challenge to Nucifora and the governing body is to spread that rich potential and in the process open up new avenues of opportunity to every young lad coming through the system. Might I add that the Director of Performance in Lansdowne Road deserves immense credit for what he has achieved thus far given the tradition and political intricacies involved.

In the bigger picture the likes of Toulon will continue to buy success. I hate everything they and their owner stands for but whether it is a Toulon or the best of the English Premiership taking that shortcut to silverware, then as long as Philip Browne and the IRFU act with financial fairness in attempting to keep our best at home, with the odd exception it will succeed.

But back to that riveting contest in Thomond on Boxing Day, specifically from a Munster perspective. I guess for Johann Van Graan (right) the landing could scarcely have been any smoother what with straight wins over Zebre, Osprey and Leicester home and away. Not for a minute would I suggest he expected this to be the norm but as promising starts go this was as good as it gets.

And despite losing to Leinster, the back-to-back Champions Cup games in Limerick and at Welford Road proved in terms of their intensity that this Munster squad is capable of taking it to another level. Still not enough to win the competition outright for a third time but certainly to clear the Pool with the possibility of a home quarter-final and all that entails.

When the sides were announced for Tuesday's game I felt Leo Cullen gave Munster and the occasion the respect it deserved by way of selection. I still don't understand the logic behind the James Lowe signing but including the newly acquired Kiwi it looked a side well capable of turning Munster over irrespective of the international elite missing.

That said, the whirlwind start, almost all of the opening half, none of us expected. Unlike the previous fortnight, Munster looked off the pace and off the occasion psychologically. The second half - I suspect on the back of a Jerry Flannery half-time verbal lashing - elicited the appropriate response and in the end two moments of magic, one defensively (by Leavy) and the other a piece of attacking magic (from Larmour), for which no defence can legislate, copper-fastened this well deserved away win.

I make that point because it has been suggested to me since that the four tries conceded smacks of a massive task in hand for newly arrived defensive coach JP Ferreira. I don't know the new head coach from Adam but I will be astonished if there was any change to the Andy Farrell-inspired defensive strategy from the previous month.

If it ain't broke why fix it and, while I'm still frustrated like many Munster supporters at the timing of the departure of the old management and arrival of the new, even so what newly appointed coach in whatever capacity would look to change when everything defensively appears to be working smoothly?

It is for that reason the lack of line speed, the drop in urgency (from Welford Road) and the fact that the first-half bullying was by the team in blue, points to a group perhaps a little tired but most definitely off the boil from what has been delivered in the month before.

To that let me add the absence of Chris Cloete and the difference he makes. I am not insinuating fault towards Tommy O'Donnell but Cloete, much like Leavy at Leinster, is a different type of flanker. Again, Leinster possess an abundance of riches in that area with Josh van der Flier similar if even more fluid than O'Donnell but Cloete, like Leavy, is a brick house at the breakdown possessing as he does an even lower centre of gravity than the most deserving Leinster man of the match.

Leavy's game has evolved from the free-ranging role in school at St Michael's to the menace he now is for every opposing team at the breakdown. Forget his try (with Munster squeezed tight and a textbook Ross Byrne cross-kick) that will be the one that will test Ferreria in post-match analysis but it was Leavy's domination of the breakdown against Munster's first-choice back-row heretofore that will cause most concern.

Of all the overseas players to come Munster's way over the years it is the South African flanker who has impressed me most upon his arrival. His impact has been immediate and if he can remain injury free he has the potential to be mentioned in the same breath as John Langford or Jim Williams in the longer term.

But the abiding memory in an increasingly claustrophobic game heavy on artisans but short on artists is of Larmour's doing what his head coach told him to do in "going out and simply beating men".

There is no substitute for inventiveness or in having that innate ability to play the moment. The ex-St Andrew's boy has that ability to sidestep and exploit space at full tilt when stepping off either foot.

So with due respect to the recently arrived Ferreira and every other defensive coach of that ilk, long may the Larmours, Carberys, Tiernan O'Hallorans and Andrew Conways of this world carry the day.

Belfast Telegraph

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