Supporters in the south of Ireland are equally able to pat their province on the back as they are to analyse the flaws. The dominant feeling in the year or two gone by was indeed the negative aspect, so much so that some supporters now find themselves drowning in doubts about Munster’s prospects forever more. But you shouldn’t feel that way.
The saying goes that self praise is no praise but it’s time to take a step back for a moment…
As long as Munster have been professional and shadowing the AIL, I hadn’t known any different than competing for the title of the greatest side in Europe up until the last couple of years. For sure, the stature of Munster has fallen since the departure of Rob Penney but is that long enough to wound the great beast forever? No, I don’t think so. With a fresh slate and old reminders anything is possible.
You see, especially now now going forward, not only do Munster have an entire squad that have grown up understanding the standards set by their old heroes of the noughties (with no better reminder than the presence of Anthony Foley, Jerry Flannery and the great Paul O’Connell on the training complex) but also two internationally proven coaches. Indeed, South Africans Rassie Eramus and Jaques Nienebar are sure to provide some much needed direction to this highly determined group of young men.
Bring X and Y together and you’re talking about a well oiled and functioning machine.
State Of Play
6th place in the Pro 12, group stage exit in the Champions Cup. That was the accomplishment of Anthony Foley last season as Munster crashed, burned and fell into one big black hole of embarrassment and disaster. Supporter’s complaints rang a fiery echo in the backdrop but there was no trace of the Munster fire of old on any level of consistency.
When it comes down to it, results divide a great season from a good season, from a good season to an okay season… and so on. Without regular victories Munster were always beyond reach of a special season but in the end there was a very small margin between a travesty and a respectable campaign:
Leinster: 17 wins, 11 losses
Munster 16 wins, 12 losses
Leinster fans were undoubtedly disappointed with their early exit from the Champions Cup but with just one more win in their season, they got to the Pro 12 final – the same feat as Munster in the season previous. Rather than being somewhat content again in the season gone by however, the 2015/16 experience will instead by remembered as an absolute nightmare for Munster fans. Small margins. A one game difference.
Don’t think for a second that I’m saying last season was actually respectable (it was from it) but the above certainly illustrates that our climb from that dark hole is a bit shorter than you might think.
Even more so, I think it’s fair to say that past results don’t mean everything. At least, not when you’re producing as many players as Anthony Foley did while acting as Munster’s top dog. The ex Munster captain brought through the likes of Niall Scannell, Jack O’Donoghue, Johnny Holland, Rory Scannell, David Johnston and Darren Sweetnam, while further afield exciting young guns John Madigan, Bill Johnston, Liam O’Connor, Sean McCarthy and Conor Oliver have also enjoyed a pinch of gametime. Going forward, their experience at their respective young ages will be vital. This compounded by the fact that themselves, and senior guys, underwent their first real lesson of what significant failure feels like. Everyday they hit the training pitch, during every match and in every moment, I would suspect that you would do that little bit extra to deny that torrid feeling of failure from returning.
You can never have enough new lads putting their hand up regardless of situation but the emergence of talent in certain positions is a whole lot more important than in others for Munster.
With Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan both having departed, with Donnacha Ryan pushing on and with Mark Chisholm perhaps retiring, Munster have been fortunate to keep their conveyor belt of locks motoring. Two monstrous 6’6 locks in the form of John Madigan and Sean McCarthy have already featured in the Pro 12 at their respective tender ages of 21 and 22 while the looming 6’9 presence of Darren O’Shea has rejoined from Worcester for the upcoming season too. While it will be vital to keep Donncha Ryan fit, Billy Holland and Dave Foley can also operate well in the engine room who will be above the young men in the initial pecking order. However, both Ryan and Foley are rarely fit together and even when so is the case, injuries are almost certain to arise during the course of the season. A fresh influx with the eager physical academy graduates can only help greatly next season let alone in later seasons where they all have capacity to become Irish internationals.
Elsewhere in the pack a tighthead is badly required to rise from the academy in my opinion, but I guess Munster have other ideas. In the backrow Munster are well stocked long-term with the international trio of O’Mahony, O’Donnell and Stander currently leading the way by a distance but the progression of Conor Oliver will be vital for the cause of options on the openside. Jack O’Donoghue will also without a doubt have his say on who should make the starting three as Dave O’Callaghan and Robin Copeland look to hit a solid run of form too. All leads to a dominant pack in future years.
In the back division, Munster have produced their brightest diamonds however. The emergence of Johnny Holland and Bill Johnston at outhalf is ridiculously exciting in such a problematic position. Holland has already proven himself in top end Pro 12 encounters and could well be Rassie’s first choice in the ten shirt from the off. He has thrived so far but whether he can keep the momentum going is yet to be seen. Either way, you would have to imagine that himself or the confident Johnston will drive on to great things leading the team in the upcoming seasons. Despite the homegrown lads development you can’t forget about Tyler Bleyendaal and Ian Keatley though. With competition in the team Keatley could be a different animal in the new season while if Tyler gets an injury free he might show why he is an ex New Zealand U20 captain.
So having written this far, the picture is that Munster actually have a bright future with the exception of one position which as I write, hangs in the balance. A strong frontrow, a fierce, youthful and bulky second row and a world class backrow providing ball for Conor Murray and a prodigal halfback partner – all under the guidance of internationally proven coaches. How bad? Well without losing bearings, being overly optimistic for a change and being somewhat naive….it gets better.
Munster have never excelled in the centre position but the new generation are set to change that.
Let’s talk about Rory Scannell. Without doubt the star product of the Munster academy last season. The delivery and pace of pass that the Corkman offers, the way he threatens the gainline and tackles everything means that I don’t have a single doubt in my mind that he won’t be special. Scannell was a close second to CJ Stander for player of the season in 2016/17 and at 22 he can only get better under the guidance of his new coaches and All Black centre partner Francis Saili. Sam Arnold formerly of Ulster will add beef from the bench going forward as his star looks to be on the rise.
Out wide, Darren Sweetnam excelled when granted opportunities at the tail end of the campaign while Stephen Fitzgerald is the most talked about back three academy member at the minute. Munster could well be tempted into moulding one or the other, or perhaps even both into out and out fullbacks due to the vacancy left by Felix Jones and Denis Hurley in the past twelve months. Simon Zebo is another man who’s backfield position is yet to be nailed down but one thing is for sure, his Ireland teammate Keith Earls has his number eleven shirt carved onto his back. The most interesting battle is to take place between Andrew Conway and Ronan O’Mahony who have both played on they wing and at fifteen. In my opinion, Conway looked more comfortable on the flank last season while O’Mahony is perhaps the squad player who was most deserved of more gametime than he received last season.
Areas of Improvement
With Munster’s current state I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that with the signing of an up market tighthead, the whole dynamic will change.
No scum no win. Results attract crowds.
Don’t be fooled into believing ‘the academy has been a failure’. When we were making Heineken Cup semi-finals not so long ago the whole system was hunky dory but the minute Munster went under inept guidance, a finger was pointed in that direction along with the nine others. With the right tactics and spirit, we can get back to those days again even if some scalps will be required to make it that far. The Munster squad is a strong one but the missing link is a tighthead prop.
Stephen Archer, John Andress, John Ryan – take your pick. Whoever it is, they will get mauled against Leicester or Racing in the Champions Cup. With NIQ positions available and with five wage bills off of the books since the end of the season, it is imperative that Munster open their wallets and invest here and elsewhere – even if the IRFU are only allowing project players at tighthead due to Wiliehm Herbst’s presence at Ulster.
The other positions alluded to are openside flanker and scrumhalf. While the number three shirt leads the way, depth is required behind Tommy O’Donnell in case of an injury (like last season) and for whilst he is at Ireland camp. Scrumhalf similarly, it could be said, would be a position of disaster if Murray got injured. Tomas O’Leary and Duncan Williams are the scapegoats of the squad and share the halfback position as both from what we’ve seen so far are incapable of replacing Murray in decent fashion and therefore a substitute scrumhalf from elsewhere is necessary.
Then we’ll be hurlin’!