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Analysis: Foley's Munster hit a new low with capitulation in Paris

Anthony Foley’s side were comprehensively beaten by 14-man Stade Français.

MUNSTER RUGBY IS in a worrying, worrying place.

The coaches failed their players at Stade Jean-Bouin on Saturday. The players failed their coaches too. Munster Rugby as an organisation is failing its rich history and everyone attached to it.

Francis Saili, Simon Zebo and Ronan O'Mahony dejected after the game Munster's players were left in utter dejection. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Munster’s ‘Strategic Plan’ for 2014 to 2017 states qualifying for the play-offs of the Champions Cup every season as one of the province’s detailed objectives, with one outright win of the tournament by the end of the 2016/17 campaign.

No matter how vehemently one argues that rugby is about fine margins, those targets are being missed and the overall goal of a European trophy looks like a pipe dream.

There were arguably several key turning points in the defeat to Stade Français – early injuries to first-choice players, missed kicks at goal, a disallowed try – but those instances are simply too numerous for Munster to be used as excuses any longer.

Whatever about their stated goals, few could argue that this Munster squad look like genuine Champions Cup contenders on paper. Nonetheless, assessment of their effort in Europe this season has to go down as one of underperformance.

This squad of players – including Ireland caps Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry, Dave Foley, Tommy O’Donnell, Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo as well as Wallaby Mark Chisholm and All Black Francis Saili – should be more effective.

Handed what was a relatively straightforward pool, certainly in comparison to what Ulster and Leinster drew, Munster have failed to fire a shot. The display against Stade encapsulated several of the on-field issues that are dragging the province to a new low.

14 men

One of the big questions after Munster’s 27-7 defeat centres around how they completely failed to exploit the fact that Stade had just 14 men for the entire second half.

We don’t know exactly what was said at half-time by Anthony Foley and his coaching staff, but CJ Stander did explain afterwards that there had been a big focus on lifting the tempo of the game in the second 40 minutes.

“We said to ourselves, ‘we have to go out there and pick up the pace’,” recalled the Munster number eight afterwards.

Mention of lifting the tempo in rugby usually leads to thoughts of width and passing the ball rapidly to those wide channels. Evidently that was Munster’s thinking, as they totally failed to address the continuing need for direct carrying in the second half.


The clip above is obviously just one brief snapshot, but it’s telling. Munster lose the gainline on the first phase of their lineout attack, and yet they still attempt to force the ball into a wide channel on the second phase.

Munster’s thinking appeared to be that if they could get the ball to the touchlines, space would be waiting. Aside from Stander, there was a complete lack of players putting their hand up to carry the ball, use a little footwork closer in to the ruck and win gainline for Munster while tying down defenders.

This is not criticism of Munster for being ambitious with the ball in attempting to play with width. Certainly the province have made some strides with their attacking template this season by bringing in clever shapes to move the ball in wide-wide patterns.

However, even the most amateur of teams in the world understand that space on the edges must be created. That occurs when defenders are tied down by strong, threatening ball carrying.

The All Blacks, for example, play beautiful attacking rugby, but the likes of Keiran Read, Jerome Kaino and Brodie Retallick never lose sight of the need for them to carry aggressively and effectively. That in turn helps create the numbers-up attacking opportunities that the likes of Nehe Milner-Skudder exploit so well.

In their coach-driven desire for ‘tempo,’ Munster appeared to completely lose sight of that most basic tenet of the game. The sight of anyone bar Stander carrying at the line in the second half was extremely rare, as were Munster attempts to maul – another means of tying down defenders.

It’s difficult to show examples here because they don’t exist. Dave Kilcoyne – who had to put in a massive 80-minute shift – is a brilliant carrier, Jack O’Donoghue has the footwork and dynamism to attract multiple defenders, Robin Copeland too.

Robin Copeland Copeland had just five carries for six metres in 80 minutes. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

They simply were not asked to use those skills in the second half, instead chasing across the pitch as Munster attempted to lift the tempo only by playing wider out from the ruck, even on early phases of their attacks.

That’s not a shortcoming on the players’ part, it’s a direct result of their skills not being utilised in a tactical manner that fits the circumstances.

Having an extra player on the pitch obviously creates a giddiness, a sense of ‘let’s throw the ball wide here and we’ll have an overlap,’ but the coaching staff should be able to lift themselves above that and view the situation with more clarity.

Even as Munster allowed Stade’s 14-man defence to dictate the second half to them, continuing to bring good linespeed, there did not appear to be any tactical direction coming from above.

Munster have always played the game with ‘tempo’. Almost every winning team in the world does. That didn’t always mean width and passing from the Munster side that Foley starred in as a player, but it did mean the pace of the game lifted when they attacked.

Ruck to ruck to ruck to ruck, Foley and the likes of Alan Quinlan and Denis Leamy hammered their carries and hammered the breakdown to force the defence into uncomfortable positions. There was energy, conviction, confrontation.

Munster lacked all of those against 14-man Stade in the second half on Saturday.


It took until the 75th minute, when Munster were already 27-0 down, for their first quick-tap penalty to come.


Before we go any further, let’s be clear that this is not a lamentation of the fact that Munster did not take more quick-tap penalties.

However, this topic is totally reflective of how Munster failed to lift the tempo of the game despite their stated ambition of doing so after the break. Speaking following the game, Stander mentioned some of his teammates walking to lineouts – inexcusable for a team that wanted to lift the pace.

Munster should have owned the momentum of the half, forcing Stade to play on their terms. Instead, there was an utter lack of energy.

In the example above, it’s European debutant Rory Scannell who takes it upon himself to grab the ball and go. Others around him are standing still, beaten men. Whatever about the losing itself, that acceptance of defeat rankled most with supporters.

The quick-tap above actually led to Munster’s only try of the game. Naturally Stade were easing up having clinched the game, but it’s instructive nonetheless.


With 78.23 on the clock and Munster now having scored a try, we see their second quick-tap penalty, leading to a major gain of yards.

This time it’s Conor Murray who darts away, but was this same energy present when Munster were genuinely in the game? Why only when the contest is already decided?


Humiliation is a strong word, but the second-half amounted to that for Munster.

Again, we go back to the minimum expectation from Munster supporters – that of effort and work rate, of concentration and intent. Those things don’t require talent.


Above, we see a wide shot as Stade begin the phase of attack that ends in Hugo Bonneval’s try. On the left side of the ruck for Munster are six defenders on their feet, with just three of the French team’s players in front of them.

On the right side of the ruck from Munster’s point of view, they are numbers down even before Francis Saili is dragged back in towards the ruck by a clever decoy line.


The missed tackles are poor of course, but that initial failure by Munster to work hard around the corner is just as costly. Even one additional body getting across after two simple phases of Stade attack could have prevented that initial space for Bonneval.

Again, this try comes at a point where Munster have already lost the game [20-0 down with 70 minutes gone] but that only makes the lack of effort and awareness all the more jarring.


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Error upon error upon error. It’s increasingly become the story of this Munster team. Not only have they made mistakes at important times in games, but they have so often backed them up with another mistake within minutes.

Let’s look at one such chain.


With the game still at 0-0 in the 18th minute, Ian Keatley misses a penalty that seems relatively kickable. It’s on the ‘wrong’ side for a right-footed kicker, but away in France it’s the kind of kick that needs to be scored.

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 1.16.38 p.m.

As we see above, the ball has barely left the tee and Keatley’s head is up looking at the posts. It’s one sign of a kicker who is more anxious about the outcome than the process that will achieve it.

Whatever about the missed kick, Munster need to react to the disappointment well. Instead, they string together three further errors.


First, Munster botch their attempt to claim the restart, therefore giving up the opportunity to maintain pressure on the Stade defence inside their own half. Dave Foley and his lifting pod misjudge the flight of the ball and then Mark Chisholm loses it too easily as he attempts to gather in behind.

Whatever about that error, Munster must react well now and apply intense pressure to Stade’s attempt to either exit or run the ball at them.

Missed tackle

Stade actually have promising numbers wide right here, but fortunately Sylvain Nicolas decides to carry instead of passing. Even with that, and the chance to get a good shot in to kill the momentum, Munster fall off the tackle – one of far too many similar instances.

Stade then opt to kick deep to Munster and there is a chance for the visitors to at least get a strong clearance back towards the halfway line.


Instead, Keith Earls completely slices his kick into touch. Less than a minute after the ball sailed wide from Keatley’s penalty attempt, Munster find themselves defending just outside their 22 after a string of errors.

The above sequence is one of many, many examples of this kind of thing from Munster in recent times. They have lacked composure and the ability to react positively to mistakes through their poor run of results.

It may not seem all that grave in terms of the actual individual errors themselves, but this kind of passage instils the opposition with incredible confidence.

‘These lads are shitting themselves,’ Stade would have thought after this, or after the string of four major mistakes in the seven minutes that followed half time – when Munster should have been playing with confidence and energy against 14 men.

Pinpointing the cause of this issue is not easy. Otherwise, Foley and his coaching staff would have helped lift the malaise from Munster by now.

Coaching is as much about managing personalities, anxiety and confidence as it is about technical knowledge. Are these Munster players being provided with the mental direction that they need?

On the other hand, it can be argued that the best players in the world don’t need a whole lot of managing or minding. Munster’s players at the moment are failing to deliver mentally as much as anything else.


A further illustration of the alarming situation Munster have found themselves in is their apparent inability to actually look up during games and identify opportunities.

Again, the examples we use here are illustrative of wider points. Watching Munster on Saturday, the words of centre Francis Saili sprung to mind.

“The boys work hard, they work so hard,” said the Kiwi of Northern Hemisphere rugby, “but I always say there’s no point in working hard if you’re not going to work smart at the same time. For instance, boys can work hard into positions, but they are sometimes like robots and stick to the structures.

“You need to see in front of you and what you’re going to play against. The pictures you see is what you’ve got to adapt to. You’ve got to adapt to the defence and how you’re going to punch holes. You’re trying to problem solve the game.”


Above we see Keatley kicking into touch on the full, again handing Stade a chance to apply attacking pressure.

The most jarring aspect of this clip is not the kick itself, but the opportunity missed by Munster in attack.


It’s about as close to a full backline outside the out-half as you’re likely to get in phase play, and with three defenders in front of them.

Whatever about field position, this is a genuine 5-on-3 as the ball goes to Keatley out the back of Foley. It’s finally on for Munster to have a numbers-up cut at the Stade defence with the likes of Saili, Zebo and Ronan O’Mahony in space.

Instead, Keatley is thinking only of the deep kick. It doesn’t appear that anyone outside him is signalling or calling for the ball.

It’s a similar story below, as Munster ignore a numbers-up chance to the right of the ruck.

Chance 2

This time Murray does actually look up and assess the options, but he nonetheless decides to move the ball left, where Stade are well set in defence. Over on the right, the French side are narrow and short on numbers. It’s a 4-on-3 for Munster at worst.

There are several other examples of the same from Munster in this game. Despite the lack of direct carrying, Stade’s 14-man defence did still give up opportunities to Foley’s side.

“You get all your options off the opposition,” said Steve Hansen during the World Cup, but Munster don’t appear to be doing that in the slightest at present.

Whether that’s a shortcoming in the coaching of these players or a longer-term issue in their rugby upbringing is an important question and must be part of Munster’s review of their European failure.

European low

Munster’s shambolic tackling effort has been well flagged in the aftermath of this defeat and going over the individual examples probably wouldn’t achieve much.

What we can say is that the consistent mistakes in defence from Munster in recent months speak volumes about the need for renewal or change within the province.

There are certainly technical and/or systematic errors involved in some of the examples of poor Munster defence that spring to mind, but defence is perhaps the most obvious illustration of a squad’s mindset.

“Defence is a reflection on team culture,” is how Scotland and Glasgow Warriors defence coach Matt Taylor puts it, a sentiment that is echoed in coaching circles all over the world.

Good defence is built on mindset and commitment, more so than any tactical idea. Off-field culture and buy-in feed defensive success.

Munster don’t have that at present, and it only adds to the sense that things will get worse before they improve.

‘If I don’t feel I can get results there’s no point in being here’ – Munster’s Foley

Stander: ‘The coaches give us everything we need, and we don’t give it back to them’

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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