Ospreys game crucial for early season confidence

This game against the Ospreys in the Guinness Pro14 has more significance than the September billing might suggest.

After last Friday’s loss in Glasgow, Munster arrive in Cork this week with some things to rectify – some of them are old problems, some of them are new, but all of them are within the ability of Johann van Graan’s team to put right.

The disappointing opening 30 minutes against Glasgow would have been an unpleasant memory of similar events last season for the Munster coaching team.

It took the Warriors 36 minutes to run up a three try, 22 point lead that would see them take the win despite a better Munster performance in the second half.

Sound familiar? It should – that was the broad strokes story of the defeat to Racing 92 in Bordeaux and other losses over the past 18 months like the Pro12 final loss to Scarlets.

Elements of this were different, of course, to those defeats. A strong wind in Glasgow’s favour and a Munster scrum that was conceding penalties allowed Stuart Hogg to pin Munster back inside their 22 for much of the opening 20 minutes.

While Munster’s defence in these instances was quite good, there really is only so much time you can spend defending your red zone without conceding something.

Hanrahan’s unfortunate unforced error on the line turned a manageable 15-0 deficit into a 22-0 mountain to climb. Bar an epic second-half rally, that was that for the game after just 36 minutes.

Munster’s aim for the season, amongst others, will be to reduce the need for that second half fightback. I know the old saying of “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” sounds good but it’s more geared towards snakes and ladders than it is to elite rugby in 2018.

This game against the Ospreys in Cork should see a few more internationals and senior guys step back into the starting XV as the season cranks up towards the Ulster, Leinster and Exeter games.

What I’ll be looking to see is an improvement in the scrum and lineout because, with those on-song, everything else can work like it’s supposed to.

A lot of Munster’s frustrations with the ball in hand on Glasgow were, in my opinion, down to an unreliable set-piece platform.

Munster were unable to launch much of substance off the scrum until later in the second half, which was bad enough, but the scrappy nature of the lineout made it doubly difficult for any kind of reliable structure to be put in place.

The stats show only one lost Munster lineout but the reality of it was much different – barely retained possession, loose handling and hurried breaks off the back.

Some of those breaks were planned, of course – you’ll recognise the revolving door pass that all the Irish provinces and national side use to hinge a runner into the space alongside the maul – but too often it played into Glasgow’s hands.

Against the Ospreys, Munster will need to have that platform locked down with the kind of reliability that was the hallmark of victories over Racing and Toulon in Thomond Park.

If they can build structure off the lineout in particular – easier said than done without the set piece IQ of Billy Holland – then they’ll be a long way to getting where they need to be against their Welsh visitors.

The new 3G surface in Cork should facilitate the kind of high tempo game that Munster are trying to play, especially with Joey Carbery likely to make his first start, but getting into a shootout with this Ospreys side is a recipe for disaster.

It might not be sexy, but structure, structure, structure is the way to go in this game to get a result that will please van Graan.

It might be September but losing is a habit that won’t be easy to break against the likes of Ulster, Leinster and Exeter.

Time is ticking, and four or five points in the bag for this round would make the road ahead a little easier to travel.

 

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