The missing piece on the URC log
NEWS: While the United Rugby Championship logs, both overall and the respective Shields, have a familiar look to them at the start of the November break for the international window, one team is the missing piece.
That team is Munster.
Leinster and Ulster, who led the way in that order for much of the inaugural URC season of 2021/22, are in that order again on both the overall log and in the Irish Shield table.
And ditto the South African log, where the currently third placed Bulls and the fourth placed Stormers, in other words last season’s finalists, currently lead the way.
There’s a bit of a distortion to the SA Shield, as the teams have the same number of log points, but the Stormers have played one game less. The Bulls are leading only on the fact that they boast one more win, five against four, but the game the Stormers have in hand really cancels that out. The Sharks, now nine points behind the Bulls, have two games in hand because of the postponement of the recent scheduled home game against Leinster.
Edinburgh are also top of the Scotland/Italy Shield, which is where they ended last season, so what is missing? What is missing is Munster, who are usually challenging the other two big Irish provinces in the conference, and who are almost always in the top five, at the very least, in the overall log battle. The South African participation has pushed their expectations down a bit, but they would have anticipated being in the top five or six at this stage of the competition, yet are nowhere near.
You have to go down to 14th place to see where Munster are listing at this point where they’ve completed just one game more than a third of the league phase of their season, and that is a most unusual situation for them to find themselves in. Their narrow loss to Ulster in the big game of this past weekend was their fifth in seven, and that record is demanding a lot of soul searching from their new coach Graham Rowntree as he uses the four week break to plot a way for his team back into the hunt for at least a place in the play-offs and next year’s Champions Cup.
Part of Rowntree’s problem in his first season as coach after taking over from former Springbok assistant coach Johann van Graan, who is now coaching English club Bath, has been injuries. It has got to the point where Rowntree has had to include players on the bench that he considers not quite ready for an intense URC game like the Irish derby invariably is and hence did not call them onto the field.
“There’s no-one left,” the Munster head coach said. “If you had a pulse, and you’re fit and registered you were involved today. That’s the challenge for a coach, leaving a player on the bench when a game’s particularly tight, particularly in a forward pack. You don’t want a forward to come on, jump offside, do something silly in a set-piece.
“It’s a fine line, particularly for a young forward. It’s a fine line bringing that forward in a tight game and I felt for Evan O’Connell at the end. I apologised but I said I stand by why I didn’t bring you on, and Ben Healy. In tight games like that, it has to be the right decision.”
Rowntree was pleased with the fight shown by his players, with the hosts fighting back from an early deficit to eventually go down by just one point to an Ulster team that registered their first win at Limerick’s Thomond Park since 2014. That gives him hope going forward, with the game scheduled against the South Africa A side at a sold-out Pairc Ui Chaoimh on November 10, being targeted as a hoped-for turn-around for his charges before the URC resumes at the end of the month.
Munster do have a lot of ground to make up though as they are currently behind Connacht too and thus last on the Irish Shield log.
Topping the log is the imperious Leinster, who continued their inexorable march to another pole position finish in the URC with an emphatic 30-point away win over Scarlets, a result that was made significant by the fact that the winners at Parc Y Scarlets were without their raft of internationals as the Irish teams headed into an understrength segment of the competition for the first time.
Leinster are the only unbeaten team in the competition going into the November break and have missed out on just two bonus points along the way. Of the other teams in the top four, both Ulster and the Stormers have a game in hand on them, but with an eight and nine point advantage respectively over those two teams there is no distortion to their position of strength.