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No sign of Larkham's impact for Munster in 'contestable box kicks-fest'

Leinster feel they need to learn from last Friday’s game and Munster will surely look to do the same.

DIFFERENT FANS REACT in very different ways to their team losing a big game and it has been no different with Munster’s latest semi-final disappointment.

Some supporters have simply wished the team well for next season, accepting CJ Stander’s assertion that “it’s an honour to get to a semi-final” and going along with Johann van Graan’s feeling of being “a lot more upbeat” than a year ago.

That’s entirely fair and no one is entitled to tell supporters how they should feel.

But others have real issues with how Munster lost last Friday night. They wonder how van Graan’s side went into another semi-final with such a limited game plan.

the-munster-team-leave-the-field-dejected Munster were left dejected on Friday night. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

They look at the detail, or perhaps the lack thereof, in the performance and wonder why Stephen Larkham was signed at all. Munster’s self-professed problem in previous semi-finals had been a lack of a cutting edge in attack and the Australian was brought in to remedy this.

But come the big occasion, it was very difficult to point to real signs of anything Larkham had brought to the mix. Munster didn’t unleash clever strike plays from set-piece, instead sometimes just box-kicking in the first phase or two, while their lack of subtlety in phase play contributed to their ball-carriers being dominated by Leinster’s defence.

There were a handful of successes under the 15 box kicks Munster hung up but there were more inaccuracies and failings. Many of the province’s supporters are wondering how there was nothing else to the plan.

Even for box-kick heavy teams like the Springboks, this tactic is part of the overall plan. Few will forget the two sweeping tries Rassie Erasmus’ side scored in the final, those skillful, intelligent moments of attack aiding the huge scrum work and pressurising kicking game.

Box-kicking is nearly always part of the Munster plan, but it had never been the entire plan.

Throughout recent weeks, Munster’s coaches and players have spoken about the value they got from the lockdown period in terms of really grasping Larkham’s philosophy. They underlined the importance of finally having all their international players around to be part of the learning. So where was the evidence of it in the semi-final? 

No one expected Munster to fling the ball around and offload at will – Leinster would likely have won by more if that was the case – but there was a hope of seeing more of the hints of progress that were present against Leo Cullen’s side two weekends before.

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The dispirited Munster fans and the optimistic supporters alike will hope that the upcoming 2020/21, which is due to kick off on the first weekend of October with the new Pro14 campaign, will bring genuine progress but the reality is we will have to wait until knock-out rugby next year to really assess them again.

stephen-larkham Munster senior coach Stephen Larkham. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In 2019/20, any encouraging attacking signs during the regular season went out the window come semi-final time.

It’s not only Munster supporters who were disappointed with the tactics last weekend, with Leinster boss Cullen critical of their approach post-match and assistant coach Felipe Contepomi following up yesterday by saying the reigning champions need to learn from the dull semi-final encounter.

“What we need to learn is not to get dragged into a game of contestable box kicks-fest,” said Contepomi. “There has to be more space.

“Actually when you analyse the game, we didn’t have much time with the ball but the time we had, we had some good attacks. The new interpretation of the law is posing those questions of risk-reward, how much you play, how much you can play.

“I think we’ll find more teams that come with tactics like Munster used against us last Friday. We can’t control that, it’s their tactics.

“What we can do is how we deal with those tactics a bit better and take teams to where we feel more comfortable, playing a more expansive sort of game.

“But if you see a normal game where you have 38 or 39 minutes ball-in-play and this game had 32 or 33 minus, so it was very chess-like.”

The hope for the disappointed Munster fans is that their own team has taken plenty of lessons from the latest semi-final defeat and not just that they were inaccurate in their execution of the game plan.

For many of the province’s faithful, the dream is that if and when Munster get back to the same stage, there is more ambition and inventiveness.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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