[I wrote this almost two months ago, and thought I posted it, then promptly forgot about it. That’s what a PhD will do to you. I have posted it now, in one go, without pictures. You have been warned.]
This is the final installment of looking over the fence style updates – its an assessment of where Munster are right now and what I expect from them this season.
I began this series initially as a way of pointing out in my typically longwinded way, that both Leinster and Ulster are facing into a period of transition such as Munster faced in the past few years. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the Munster experience. Firstly Munster continued winning even while deep into what is retrospectively seen as a fallow period, winning a Magners league under Tony McGahen – Leinster should take note. It wasn’t until the following year and the drubbing from Ospreys in the semi finals that really signaled that the team had run out of puff. Partially because of the previous years win, it was somewhat of a shock that things seemed to have regressed so quickly. In fact if it wasn’t for the scoreline there’s a chance that people may not even have considered looked at the season as the failure its now considered. On the other hand Leinster had beaten Munster 30-0 in 2009 and while there were extenuating circumstances given Hayes’ sending off, this is probably when the red province first notably began to unravel. In this context Munster’s Transition has been a long process and is in many respects still ongoing. Its difficult to say for sure if anything more could have done between 2009 and 2012 to remain competitive, and the 2011 league win suggests not. But for a province that prides itself on its European campaign the league remains small consolation, except of course when you can’t even win that.
Although rugby continues to grow as a commercial and sporting entity, it remains a minority sport with an extremely small player base at the professional level. This is something that commentators, fans, whoever, often forget until some sort of crisis occurs. Then all of a sudden you have people devoting serious thought to creating a European competition with South African or Argentine teams involved to replace England or France. Perhaps that idea is a throwback to when rugby’s supporters were mainly comfortable middle and upper class men who could potentially have afforded that trip, but considering the generally abysmal turn out in Edinburgh, Italy, all the Welsh provinces, and Glasgow until recently, I doubt there would have been significant numbers taking a week or so off to go see Cardiff/Toulon/Saracens (delete as appropriate) get beaten in Pretoria. Similarly when the Welsh regions talk about jumping aboard the premiership train there is acrimonious talk of ejecting the ingrates from the Celtic league and adding a new Scotch and Italian team as well as some unspecified Spanish,Georgian or Russian club. Never mind that the Scots and Italians have thus far been incapable of fielding two competitive teams in the league; adding some semi-pro Georgian outfit to the league is bound to improve competitiveness, attendance and sponsorship.
All of which is to say that although Rugby is a wonderful and exciting sport, it has a narrow base, and teams that were once spoken of in hushed tones have often been left in the dust with the passing of a squad or generation. Even with the benefits of established finance and a large support base, there have been a number of teams that cannot match up to what came before, and have gradually slipped into mediocrity or worse. I’m thinking here of the likes of Biarritz, Perpignan, Wasps, and to a somewhat lesser extent Leicester Tigers. Teams with established, historic bases who have in recent years become a shadow of their former selves. Or teams who were once feared throughout Europe, and while they maintain a level of respect and even occasional domestic success, it must be small consolation to fans who once expected much more. Just because a team were once successful does not mean they are guaranteed, or even deserve, to return to the level where their predecessors once stood.
Its still unclear if Munster will be able to return to the level of past glories, and a couple of European and league semi-final appearances is not going to cut it. Regardless of whether you date the beginnings of transition from 2009 or 2012, its been too long for most Munster fans. there was a sense of disgruntlement amongst supporters in Penney’s first year right until the team reached the Heineken semi final. Although many in Thomond would hate to be associated with the likes of Manchester United, there was a sense that Penney may have gotten the boot in the first season if he hadn’t met the minimum requirement of the big European day out.
Penney famously likened the transitional phase to being in a pit (or ‘piut’ as he said it) and basically having to dig yourself out of it. In hindsight I’m not actually sure what he meant by that. However I’m pretty sure that his way of filling that pit was developing as many respectable options in each position as possible and then …. standing on their bodies to climb out? I’m really not sure what the point of his metaphor was actually. But regardless one of the most obvious and commendable features of Penney’s short time in charge has been the development of several new and legitimate options in most positions. At times there were rumours of fallings out and questions over why the likes of Stander or Conway were even in the squad considering their extended absences from the senior team. However both of these have bulked up considerably and Stander in particular had a superb second season, while JJ appeared assured as alternative fly half throughout the year, and even Conway appeared to be coming good in the latter stages of last season.
Having previously only made two sub appearances, James Cronin played in 26 games last year and looked at times like he could usurp Kilcoyne as first choice loosehead. I was surprised at just how well he adapted to first team rugby but the pack as a whole was, I would say, masterfully handled by Penney and I think he deserves genuine praise in that regard. I believe he was a hooker in his playing career although I might be wrong. Regardless the Munster pack has regained some of the old grit although it still needs to be strengthened, mainly on the tighthead side. At the same time there are 4-5 genuine hooker options, two established props on either side and two back ups who got a taster of first team action last season, although its clear that Penney didn’t trust Cotter as a viable option, playing a total of 20 minutes last season. If Kilcoyne and Archer can continue a general upward trend, and if a decent third choice tighthead option can be found then Munster will be fairly well stocked in the front row. I mean no ill will towards Cotter but at 28 he’s not exactly a long term option even by tighthead standards, and could be 30 before he’s a serious contender that you can depend upon regardless of the opposition, if he ever reaches that level.
I won’t go through the options at second and back row as before just because there are so many. O’Connell is back to his best, O’Callaghan remains a strong option while the other O’Callaghan, Foley, Donnacha Ryan, Billy Holland and new boy Robin Copeland makes the Munster second row looks extremely well stocked. If there is any criticism to be found its that a number of these back up options are in-betweeners, not quite a flanker or lock, and are all a similar body shape with no 6’8”+ freaks, but that’s just the realities of human size bell curves. It does mean that if Leinster’s new Aussie Lock is up to speed they could have one of the best and tallest partnerships going in European rugby.
Backrow is a similar story with so many legitimate options that salt of the earth hero James “Calling” Coughlan has decided to move abroad to ensure he will play more rugby. It says a lot about the quality of your backrow set up when your first choice 8 feels he needs to step aside like that – I hope it wasn’t caused by ill feeling or a falling out, and I’ve heard nothing to suggest this was the case. Given that Foley, king once, and king to be, was/is one of Munster’s favourite sons and a top notch 8 (also top Heineken try scorer for Munster I believe) there will be much excitement to see what stamp he puts on a group that were already running well. I realize he was already working closely with the likes of POM and Stander but as head coach he will have new ideas for their roles and also has to find a place for Copeland. In a way these three all have the feel of hybridized flankers about them and can play across the back row to some extent, so it will be interesting to see what Foley does with them. All three are good carriers although in different ways, have good hands, and Stander and POM are proven poachers. Also POM and Copeland are great aggro men so it will be interesting to see how discipline is handled or if its an issue.
Again if there are any misgivings about the back row is probably that the difference between first choice and second choice is quite large both in terms of skills, and to a lesser extent in terms of size when looking at openside in particular. Nonetheless I feel reasonably safe in saying that Munster have the second best backrow in the League after Leinster.
Last year scrum half was probably Munster’s weakest position, or at least back up. Conor Murray came back from the Lions tour one of the only players with their reputation enhanced by the affair. Curiously enough he also probably played the least of any scrum half on tour but in the context of Warrenball that made him look the best. And he is, in fairness, one of the best in these islands, if not the six nations. Others might do certain things a little better but at this point Murray’s all round game is probably the most solid of any starting 9. However his back ups have looked shaky. Williams is never going to push for a starting position even if he did improve last year. For some reason people have it in their heads that he’s a young lad but he’s 28! Not much room left to improve I feel. Sheridan was better but also injured at times. With Murray away with Ireland and/or at times injured or rested both back ups have to be worthwhile options and Williams is not. Sheridan is somewhere in between, and in a sense suffers from being obviously better than Williams but obviously less good than Murray. You feel yet again that Stringer was the ideal 20 minute option from the bench but that’s not his style and you have to respect that in a guy who has basically earned the right to ease into retirement.
Munster’s backs were often the cause of upset for fans during Penney’s tenure and the blame was placed on Mannix, which is understandable. Some rumours suggest Penney might have gotten a better deal if he hadn’t stuck by Mannix but he did so he left. Again admirable, but was foolhardy if Mannix was holding back the players. But was he? Murray was generally good, Keatley grew into his role as first choice fly half, and JJ looked quite assured. Was this all based on personality rather than coaching? Possibly. By far the greatest problem with Munster’s backs was the underperforming centre partnership. Downey built his reputation as a bosher, then was asked to change, but didn’t have the skills to play a second 5/8 (if that’s what he was even supposed to be – it often wasn’t clear). Keatley on the other hand, or JJ, could both have played the role of second playmaker at 12 to a higher level, but given the lack of a third option at 10 neither was available.
Laulala on the other hand, was deeply predictable in his unpredictability. It was quite clear that once he had the ball he was going to make an offload. For some reason this never seemed to click with the Munster back three, who were frequently found elsewhere at the crucial moment, at which point Munster’s move would invariably break down. The question as such is if this was the failure of the player or the coach, or the support players? In a way it always comes back to the coach, because if Laulala was doing this against his/their wishes, he should have been dropped. If the wings weren’t providing the support that was expected, they should have been dropped. And if you can’t drop everyone, then maybe you need a second game plan. None of these actually happened, and because Downey and Laulala were both usually fit and there weren’t many other options at 13, we never really saw an alternative.
We won’t know for sure who’s fault this was, because both coaches and centres have moved on. Losing both starting centres is a blow, even if they didn’t truly click. In their stead we have the likes of Hurley or Bleyandaal at 12 and Earls, Johne Murphy or Dineen at 13. Straight away its interesting that none of those are considered solely a centre. While numerous of players have obviously come through in one position before switching and excelling in another, you’d feel a bit more confident if one of them had been a centre from the get go. Earls is the most proven option of those five but he’s been best on the wing lately. How much of that is simply down to what position was available to him is of course open to debate, but if he was really threatening as a centre option in training you would expect him to have taken more starts from Laulala last season. Taken as individuals I don’t see a centre partnership amongst those names that would strike fear into the hearts of whatever team Munster plays in the knock out stages next year. Dineen, Murphy – these are solid squad options but not a lot more than that. I have a lot of time for Hurley and I’m sure he will be a solid pair of hands. At the same time with the amount of time Jones spends injured he may be needed at full back more than 12. Its interesting that Cian Bohane has been added to the senior squad with only two sub appearances in the past two seasons. He’s been given a one year extension for the season, and should have a chance to make an impression at some point in the year. The last option is Andrew Smith the Aussie who was signed to minimal fanfare. He strikes me as a stopgap until the world cup is over and Munster can sign a big name option. Again I’m surprised that both Leinster and Munster allowed Connacht to outbid them on Bundee Aki – Munster have depth but are there viable alternatives outside of Hurley and Earls?
There’s plenty of depth and utility options in the back three which means there should be less issues there than in midfield. The main questions will be around Zebo – what is he doing here, why is he doing that, oh god he didn’t make that tackle, OMG did you see that tackle??? Everything about Zebo seems to gather a lot of attention. At the start of the season at least the attention will probably be on his workrate, as he has publicly stated that Schmidt wants him more involved. Even without Zebo officially saying it we already knew what sort of player Schmidt likes – the type that is involved at all times for the full 80, doing as much work as possible and getting across the field and back as often as necessary. This is also, coincidentally, the type of player that was needed to make Laulala’s offloads work. While Zebo has improved his workrate its easy to find evidence of him slacking – any highlights reel from last season will show him being both industrious and idle in almost equal measure. Its not that he can’t do the work its just perhaps he’s not up to speed on just how much work he should be doing. That, or he has different ideas about what his role is as a more stand offish, roving speedster. Its not a bad thing, and if there is a change in Munster’s back play as one expects then we might finally see the best of Zebo. For now though he seems to me to be an above average player in a less than vintage Munster team, and maybe that’s why Munster fans have often been confused about why he’s been left out of Ireland squads.
Somehow, in trying to make this preview shorter than the previous two, I’ve made it longer. I didn’t even know I had that much to say about Munster but something about that southern team just makes people want to talk, at length, and give their opinion. I think Penney is unfortunate to not see how his team develops into maturity, having brought so many players to a level where they seem like they can compete, adding depth to a team that was ragged at the edges.
At the same time its hard to see where they will find that extra few percent that makes a team winners, and having lost to Glasgow who were themselves mauled by Leinster, its hard to see how they’re going to attain silverware in the league, much less Europe. Munster fans will be hoping that the difference is in the all-Munster coaching ticket, the dream team that they’ve been waiting for since Axel first booted and tracksuited on the sidelines. If he can’t deliver its going to be interesting to see how long it takes the fans to turn on him and his coterie.