Second Year, Second Review. Time to see how many people we can piss off at once!
At the start of the campaign hopes were high for Axel’s men. The group a lot less challenging than seasons past. A group that featured Italian minnows Treviso, a good Leicester side but probably one of the better draws to get from the Premiership and the surprising French Champions Stade Francais. Each side not known for recent European success but would be a challenge all the same. Munster were considered lucky compared with other Pro 12 sides who faced European heavyweights in each of their groups. All that said and done, this was one of the worst campaigns from a Munster in the history of the competition. Lack of confidence, lack of pride and lack of direction seemed to be the main issues which arose. However, in terms of effort there was also, as unimaginable as it seems a decrease this season. Although this only applies to the few bad egg performances during the Stade and Leicester games, it was a fine reminder of how little inspiration the out of dept Foley offered to his squad. Luckily such players were able to recover their form to save embarrassment in the Pro 12.
Too little, too late as they were unable to recover an awful Champions Cup showing – perhaps mission impossible. I’m going to highlight the Stade away game in particular as that hurt the most. You could tell Foley ran out of any tactical ideas as the players seemed lost throughout the game. This match was also the end of his selection of Ian Keatley. To concede three very soft tries with no reply was where Munster fans drew the line for Foley. You could tell the players lacked energy and motivation throughout the game. Simply nobody was able to provide any answers to the French onslaught. Star players such as Zebo, Stander and Earls even began to tire and couldn’t stop the French as they had no plan to strike back. Foley had half-time to motivate his players and what little chance they had was taken swiftly away by the French Champs who paraded in for two soft tries in the second half despite being reduced to fourteen men.
Under performing at a domestic level is bad but when you can’t motivate a good group of players to perform on the big stage you just aren’t right for the job. Two years of no knockout European rugby has been Anthony Foley’s downfall thus brings in the new hope in which Rassie Erasmus and his new backroom staff shall bestow upon a dower Munster side.
Guinness Pro 12
Last year was a good year for Munster in the Pro 12 getting all the way to the final but failing at the final hurdle. We knew that this season wouldn’t be similar as we had lost two leaders in Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony. Munster started the season extremely well with victories over Glasgow and Ulster being highlights. At this stage many people thought Foley’s men would be able to even go one better than the year before and win the whole thing.
However as Christmas came close players fell injured and teams learned how to outwit Munster which Foley had no answer to. This came as a significant obstacle to Foley who’s ideas wore thin and Munster began to fall apart as a result. Heavy losses to Connacht, Newport Gwent Dragons and Leinster were just embarrassing and proved that Foley and his backroom staff were way out of their depth. A scrappy win against Ulster meant Foley’s men would save themselves from a six game losing streak.
Although their losing form continued after this they grabbed unconvincing wins only against minnows in the league. Many people doubted Axel’s men to qualify for Champions Cup after losses to Glasgow and Cardiff and with Leinster and Connacht to play. The turning point however arose as Foley finally introduced Johnny Holland who impressed against Zebre and went on to be a shining light in the improving Munster side who lost narrowly to Leinster and Connacht. Fortunately, narrow losses transformed into victories under the influence of Holland and this season’s star man Rory Scannell when Munster claimed victories over Edinburgh and Scarlets to ensure qualification for Europe’s top competition next season.
This season as a whole has been a shambles. Foley and backroom staff looked uncomfortable at the top and weren’t able to turn things around until the very last minute ultimately costing Munster a playoff spot. Although there was fierce competition at the top, Munster usually find it a formality when playing in the Pro 12. Struggling to beat minnows such as Treviso and losing to Newport Gwent Dragons is unacceptable in its own right but barely scraping a Champions Cup spot is just embarrassing for a team that usually compete at the very top of Domestic Rugby.
Last year we slated Foley for only introducing players when there was no other option. For instance, Neil Cronin, Kevin O’Byrne and Jack O’Donoghue were likely to have only been selected because of positional crisis’ during the Six Nations. However, the season just passed saw a major swing in Axel’s selection policies, much to his credit. Straight from the off guys like John Madigan, Bill Johnston & his brother David, along with Scannell brothers Niall and Rory were immediately thrown into the mix.
Indeed, fans were universally impressed with such players showings in preseason and as many as possible were played against Treviso in the first competitive outing. Carrying along into crunch matches, Anthony Foley made a mighty statement of intent by installing both Scannell brothers into starting numbers for the European Cup alongside Jack O’Donoghue, another product of the academy in rather recent seasons taken under Foley’s wing. In truth it would be an understatement to say that they all stood up to the mark and furthermore always offered a glimpse of light in the darkest of hours. And the head coach wasn’t done just there. As the Six Nations kicked off, the likes of Darren Sweetnam and Johnny Holland (who just recovered from injury at the time) were allowed to kick on. Another two youngsters who made proud names for themselves.
On the youth development front, I think Foley can now walk away feeling somewhat proud of his mark left on Munster. He is absolutely not the man to get them to their best potential but these injections of faith should fair well in making Rassie Erasmus’ job so much easier.
Showing the new boys the ropes were of course the senior members of the squad but as in any season, it wasn’t clear sailing for some of them. Ian Keatley at times wanted the ground to open up and swallow him. No better evidence of this could be seen than in the Leicester and Stade encounters. In his aid though, Foley offered as much support as necessary. For Keatley’s sake, his coach more or less played an injured Tyler Bleyendaal in the defeat to Leinster in order to allow the 29 year old kicker to refresh. It didn’t work unfortunately, and the next step was to replace him with Johnny Holland. Up until then, there was no alternative outhalf as Holland. Bleyendaal and Johnston were sidelined throughout, but once available, Keatley’s poor form was punished immediately. This decision proved vital as Johnny Holland proved a season saver displaying incomparable confidence from both the tee and when on the ball. Such a breath of fresh air confirmed a top six finish for Munster, and more importantly, a future.
The only criticism I would have is that scrumhalf Cathal Sheridan was mistreated to not find himself ahead of Tomás O’Leary and Duncan Williams in the pecking order. You’re either in Foley’s good books or in total exile. And so, another one bites the dust.
The Axel era will never be remembered fondly by any means. The experience as a fan has been challenging and even though it’s now time to move on, it is a great shame that so much potential has been wasted. 3/10
Admins Paul and Ronan