What does it take?
Right now is the most excited Munster supporters have been in the last five years. There has been a quarter final and two semi-finals in between and there was great hope that Rob Penney’s troops in particular could go all the way with some luck. However, those teams didn’t feel quite as special, those teams didn’t mirror their European form in the league each week and those teams didn’t make the knockouts in the same style as this current crop look all but set to do.
Munster have 21 internationals in their current squad – the players are not punching above their weight, as outsiders have speculated. All that has changed from previous years is that the coaching set-up have managed the get the individuals to express themselves. The Scannells, John Ryans and Darren Sweetnams of this world are still far from household names, but are much closer this year than last. The talent was always there, it just wasn’t recognized enough in a losing outfit and quality coaching has aided that particular issue. Are the men in red out and out underdogs, not necessarily. Here’s why:
Rassie Erasmus’ frontrow of Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell and John Ryan, on paper, isn’t one that would impress the casual supporter. Interestingly, that isn’t down to their performance to any extent but rather their status’. Had Kilcoyne been the regular Irish substitute loosehead, as he probably should have been (let’s be honest), for the past three years his reputation would be much higher than it currently stands. The Limerick man’s ball carrying is unmatched by any frontrower in Ireland and has dismantled multiple scrums this season with his partners Niall Scannell and John Ryan. Kilcoyne’s case here is relatable for more than one player in the first team, namely, Tommy O’Donnell, Donnacha Ryan and perhaps Simon Zebo.
For others, it’s a case of the future rather than past and if there’s any justice for Niall & Rory Scannell, John Ryan and Darren Sweetnam, they will have their parts to play in a green shirt sooner rather than later. Their performances this season have been nigh on flawless so why aren’t they universally rated? Because they have to prove that this is more than form, and early standards must be at the very least retained in the knockout stages for the team to compete.
Driving these excellent player’s standards are the world class likes of Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Conor Murray. The public need to smell the roses, the great man’s passing has given everybody an edge but who’s to say Foley’s helping hand wouldn’t have acted as a catalyst to this success?
Having Munster’s calibre of players isn’t something to take for granted and neither is utilizing them. That’s why it must be mentioned that Rassie Erasmus’ man management, first off, has been magnificent.
Early signs were promising as the South African showed a clear injection of faith into the up and coming stars in the Munster camp – with his decision to start Darren Sweetnam in every game he was available for perhaps the finest example. Sweetnam, along with various other young guns impressed throughout the early stages of the season and despite defeats to Cardiff and Leinster, the mood was an especially confident one.
Then the unthinkable happened.
However, the reaction since then makes the man so much more impressive. Erasmus’ handling of such a tragic situation was exceptionally admirable and has balanced Munster’s focus and emotion with aplomb.
Tactically, Munster are superb. The scrum has operated brilliantly under Jerry Flannery’s guidance; Jaques Nienaber’s defence has been world class; Rassie Erasmus’, Niall O’Donovan’s and Flannery’s forward play expertise have shown in the the pack’s detail and accuracy; while Felix Jones is proving a very promising coach with the backs.
Munster are a well oiled machine ready to challenge anyone but can they beat the best of the best?
The excitement behind just thinking that there’s a chance of getting back into the top tier of Europe has had me watching a lot of rugby recently. Could Munster beat Saracens? Could Munster beat Leinster? Could Munster beat Clermont? Do Munster still have the pieces that brought them that far in previous times?
The calibre of player and coach that Munster have, as magnificent as it all is, is equaled by others. Saracens and Clermont have produced similar talents to Munster and Leinster through their academies but where they differ is that they have the mega-bucks to buy world-class ready-made all-stars as opposed to Munster having to cleverly scout and nurture the likes of CJ Stander.
The four teams tipped as more likely than Munster to get their hands on the trophy by the bookies are Saracens, Clermont, Leinster and Wasps. All of which pose different challenges but Saracens stand out as the one side that Munster may struggle to contain in defence and outsmart in attack.
In Thomond Park, I believe Munster could beat anyone. However, on the big away days, or even in a neutral final, Munster would probably need to be in the perfect state of mind to pull through as victors. Not only clarity in mind to execute accurately, but also to bring some heat to the opposition. Would a super star squad like the Saracens’ have to be in such a great mental state to defeat an anything but perfect Munster? I don’t think so.
There is no point in pretending there isn’t genuine quality in the Munster set-up or that they can’t go all the way even if everything goes smoothly. The issue is that there are the two many ifs, and even with luck, Munster would still need to produce more than one blockbuster performance along the way.
You can still get excited, you can still believe, just don’t expect.