Season in Review: Munster

Well, it certainly ended badly.  Post-Six Nations, Munster had three big games: home to Leinster in the Pro12, the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Ulster and the Pro12 semi-final.  They flunked out of all three, and the final game of the season was pretty undignified; a rare whupping, 45-10 at the hands of an Ospreys team with little in the way of household names. While surprisingly long on talent, it was still the guts of the team that struggled past Aironi the week previously – albeit without Justin Tipuric.

It brought the curtain down on a difficult, transitional season.  It’s not the disaster of 2011’s Heineken Cup group exit, but it’s a year that everyone will probably be happy is at an end.  Munster’s passing of the torch to the next generation has been a somewhat piecemeal and fumbled affair without an overarching direction in mind.  You get the feeling they have not yet committed to a grand vision of how the future should look, and have stumbled from one selection to the next.  The uncertainty has been felt more and more as the season went on, and reached its nadir on Friday night – most worrying from a Munster perspective was the lack of fight, there seemed to just be an acceptance of sorts, a palpable relief that it was over. Much of the work was forced through by injuries, and while plenty of new names have been dropped in, there have been some alarmingly wobbly performance graphs and a couple of players seem to have gone straight backwards.

This time last year, Danny Barnes was being touted by an occasionally excitable fanbase as the future of Munster centre play.  He has had a torrid campaign, and finds himself back at square one.  Conor Murray is a talented player, but his was a classic case of second season syndrome.  Whether or not his propensity to take the ball into contact so often was under instruction (due to a lack of ball carriers elsewhere) we don’t know, but someone needs to sit him down in front of the tape of last year’s Magners League final and remind him to simplify his game.  He has the quality to recover, though, and did put in a strong finish.

All that said, there have been numerous success stories, none more so than Peter O’Mahony.  The versatile backrow has enough snap and snarl in him to start a fight in an empty dressing room, but what stood out were his football skills.  WoC can recall at least two occasions on which he went scrum-half and whipped quick, accurate, long passes out in front of the first receiver.  He looks future captain material.  Mike Sherry endured a nightmare on Friday night, but it was a first major setback in what has been a fine breakthrough season.  He looks set to be entrenched in the No.2 jersey for years.  The jury is still out to some extent on Simon Zebo.  Eleven tries is an impressive haul, but equally telling are the defensive lapses and sloppy distribution.  He’s still a pretty rough diamond, but time is on his side.  Dave O’Callaghan and Tommy O’Donnell look solid footsoldier material. Ian Nagle should be pushing for Rabo starts next season, particularly with Micko gone and Donncha’s decline.  We also have high hopes for Paddy Butler, who would add another badly needed carrier to the backrow.

To be fair, Munster were debilitated with injuries for much of the campaign.  Doug Howlett’s absence was keenly felt (he was in scintillating form), and Munster lost an entire backrow for much of the season: Wallace, Leamy and Niall Ronan (another whose form was terrific) were all chopped down.  Once James Coughlan succumbed to injury, the backrow was looking way too callow.  And no team would remain undiminished without a player of Paul O’Connell’s quality, and while Ireland suffered his absence more than Munster, he is the man they can’t do without.

Munster’s playbook remains an issue.  Foley has been commended with reinvigorating their forward play and, for sure, their set piece is improved from where it was last year.  However, the frequency with which they are dominated at the breakdown is a concern.  The unheralded likes of Shane Jennings, Chris Henry and Justin Tipuric all ruled the roost against them at the ruck in recent games.  In attack Munster looked laboured.  Too often the ball is handed to an isolated runner one man out from the ruck, who charges into the nearest available defender.  In the backline, an innovative coach is needed to bring some new ideas to the table.  Against Ulster, they owned the ball, but couldn’t punch their way through the blanket of tacklers.  Munster actually have pretty good players from 9-15, so there is no need for their back play to look quite as ponderous as it does.

Meanwhile, discipline is a problem that just won’t go away.  When Egg Chaser recently met Romain Poite (in a well lubricated exchange in Bruxelles after the Heineken Cup semi-final), he asked him what it felt like to be the most hated man in Munster; Poite replied that every time he referees Munster they make the same mistakes.  As Paulie put it, they’re beating themselves.

Whiff of Cordite would be of the opinion that the sorry thrashing from the ‘Spreys could be the best thing that happens to this Munster team.  Too often this year, tight victories (Northampton and Castres), or excuse-laden defeats (the “Poite-inflicted” defeat to Ulster) have allowed the cracks to be papered over.  Now the picture has been revealed, and the full scale of what needs to be done is clear to see – those 41 phases and that Rog drop goal might have entered the pantheon of Ligindary moments, but they most certainly hid some seriously average European performances, and Rog’s least effective season to date.  Rob Penney will be a welcome new voice, one who comes to the club with no baggage whatsoever.

His job is to build a winning group out of what is now a fairly callow, inexperienced side.  The image of Munster as an ageing unit has now passed, and it’s been replaced by a more youthful, and rather more uncertain version – Penney’s reputation is that of a disciplinarian, but some of the newbies will be needing an arm around the shoulder.  With Wallace, Flannery, the Bull and Micko retired, Horan and O’Callaghan peripheral and Leamy a busted flush, we are down to the last vestiges of Generation Ligind.  Paul O’Connell is still a magnificent warrior, and one ventures that the 35-point margin in the Ospreys debacle would have been as much as 20 points lower had he been playing.  But for the first time, there are real doubts over ROG’s value to the team.  Now 35, he has done precisely nothing of note in 2012 and had perhaps his worst game in the red of Munster against the Ospreys.  For a player of his calibre, it wasn’t good enough.  His lack of breaking threat is a contributor to the attack woes that have bedevilled Munster for who knows how long.  ROG will need to be succeeded eventually, but how soon should the process begin?  And can Keatley be the man to succeed?  One thing’s for sure – it’ll be interesting.

Penney’s first task as Munster coach should be to identify a core of young players who can be Generation Next, its future leaders, and empower them to step out of the shadows of Generation Ligind and take the reigns.  WoC was disappointed in hearing that when Penney talked to two of the Munster players at the time of being appointed, neither was one of its future stars (he talked to POC and ROG; Joe Schmidt by contrast met with Leo Cullen and Johnny Sexton before taking the equivalent post at Leinster). 

We would earmark Mike Sherry, Donnacha Ryan, Keith Earls, Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony as the core around which the club should build. Expect more difficult years ahead, but it is imperative they keep their eyes on the prize, which is HEC ambitions by around 2016. The years in between are likely to be characterised by silverware and success in D4 and BT6 – Munster must not get distracted by their rivals and should play the long game. Moaning and gnashing of teeth are anticipated, but (and just ask Leinster and Ulster) this type of hard work will pay off.

Season to remember: Keith Earls’ performances at centre have silenced many doubters, and his distribution and awareness are out of sight compared to twelve months ago.  Penney should be brave and keep him in the 13 shirt – Laulala will have to work around him.

Season to forget: Donncha O’Callaghan was only visible when warming up maniacally before his appearances as reserve.  National selection beggared belief.

Best match: the home win vs. Northampton.  Classic Munster drama.

Best performance: 36-51 win in Northampton.  O’Mahony owned the breakdown and Zebo shredded the Saints’ defence.

Worst performance: Limp capitulation to Ospreys was a sad end to McGahan’s tenure.

Thanks for the memories: David Wallace, the greatest Munster backrow of the modern era.

See you next season: James Downey arrives from Northampton.  Predictable, for sure, but he will at least provide another ball carrying option, where the outstanding James Coughlan needs a supporting cast to chip in some hard yards.

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20 Comments

  1. Matt McGrath

     /  May 14, 2012

    Totally agree with your summary – especially the bit about the lack of fight. O’Mahoney the only one who looks like he’d get in an old school munster pack. I worry that this half arsed approach to transition, though tempting in the short term, could cause long damage. Great though our love for Rog has been, Ospreys was certainly a low point and really made me think he should move on. I guess my prime concern is that we are stuck between cultures, red deer in the headlights afraid of letting go old ten man Munster and embracing new Leinster style speed and fluidity. For now I’ll put my faith in Penny.

  2. Amiga500

     /  May 14, 2012

    The next few years could be painful ones for the folks from Munster, they are going to have to become used to their team not winning almost every game, indeed, possibly even not winning most games. Some of their youth players are very over-rated in my opinion and have yet to really show all-round class.

  3. Tich

     /  May 15, 2012

    Couldn’t agree with you saying that Munster from 9-15,look ok.Take the team against Ospreys,who incidentally looked loads more interested in the game than the Reds.
    15 Murphy,(didn’t make it at Leicester,nothing much of note with Munster)
    14 Dineen ,very raw ,Luke O’Dea looks a better winger
    13 Earls, some day I will give him more than 7 out of 10, just can’t make up my mind about him.
    12 Mafi , Will continue to disappear up his own backside ,in France.How many tries ths year per game.
    11 Zebo has pace,not a lot else, long schooling needed.
    10 Keatley, not the worst, could yet do it
    9 Murray ,coming along but needs to improve decision making.
    Don’t see next years imports adding very much to a pedestrian,in thought and action.

    Time to say cheerio to Rog,has been fantastic but has got so slow and predictable in attack.
    Maybe the new coach will consider the great D.Howlett as backs coach,could be an interesting thought.
    The worst aspect of Munsters game in last few years has been the decline in discipline towards the Laws,and I fear that Sherry,a great prospect, no more than that,has joined Varley as a serial offender.How many penalties have these 2given away over the season,shudder to think.Sure somebody has the answer somewhere.
    Munster supporters are in for a few lean years, but no reason to think that they won’t be back ,firing on all cylinders,before too,long.

    • It’s a fairly futile exercise judging the backline by one (embarrassing) game in an injury riven season (typified by Jones having to withdraw hours before kick-off).

      15. Murphy was Leicester’s top try scorer the season before he joined Munster, hardly a failure. He’s suffered for his versatility (I think he’s started in every position from 11 to 15). He’s a solid pro but wouldn’t start a HCup game if Munster had a full squad
      14. I would hope that O’Dea is a better winger than Dineen. Dineen is a centre. He is raw, he’s played 4 games this season
      13. I don’t know how else Earls can impress. His defense has been excellent for Ireland and Munster. His attack has been good but will get better with someone inside him who creates space, like Downey, rather that Mafi who takes space away. Whats most impressive has been his passing. Watch the timing and accuracy of his pass to Bowe for Ireland’s second try in Paris.
      12. I can’t really defend Mafi. Undisciplined and he usually take too much out of the ball. If it wasn’t for lack of options he wouldn’t have lasted this long
      11. Zebo’s record this season has prob glossed over his failings somewhat but it’s still not bad for a breakthrough season. Considering his improvements from last season to this season his future is still bright
      10. Keatley has had a decent first year at Munster. He prob needs to up his kicking stats a bit but he’s got good pace, an eye for a break and decent offloading game. ROG coming on actually damaged Munster on Friday, he clearly wasn’t fit. It’s a pity Keatley didn’t get to see the game though
      9. Murray’s had a mixed season. There’s prob been too much pressure on him to carry the ball. When he broke into the team Wallace and Coughlin were punching holes. His decision making does need to improve

      Discipline has definitely been an issue, although I think it’s improved this season over last.

      • I’d go along with DramaticIntro’s ratings there. Also, we had in mind the first choice backline in general as opposed to that which started vs. Ospreys. I’d regard Zebo, Howlett, Hurley, Jones, ROG, Murray and Earls as all being good players. A decent 12 would go a long way at Munster, Mafi has been pretty awful for the last three seasons and for us the jury is very much out as to whether Downey will be that which is so badly needed. Frankie Sheehan once tweeted us to tell us Ivan Dineen was a hugely promising 12 to keep an eye on. First person to guess who his agent is wins a round of moccha-frappuccinos…

        I think there’s a bit of an unwillingness to cut Earls a fair deal among certain fans who won’t accept that Limerick can produce a decent three-quarter! We had our doubts (and voiced them regularly) over his ability to play 13at test level, but he has come up trumps. Distribution markedly improved, running style sensational. His pass that Felix Jones dropped in the quarter-final showed his class. And he’s got moxie.

      • As ever, the centre is going to be a crucial area next season. Downey may be a one trick pony but he knows his trick pretty well. He’s a good ball carrier, something Munster have really lacked this season, he straightens the line and he sucks in defenders. He should be able to create more space for those outside him.

        I have been impressed by Dineen over the last month. Although he is 25 this summer and he looks slight to me.

        Danny Barnes has had a lower profile season than he had last year. He does seem to have bulked up though. He could be Munster’s Nevin Spence.

  4. Friday night was an embarrassing way to end the season but we should no more rate the season by that than we should rate it by the hiding given to the Saints.

    The barometer of the season for me was the Ulster game. They dominated territory and procession for long stretches (90% for one 10 min period, I think) but didn’t have the ideas or the accuracy to break Ulster down.

    McGahan has done a decent job of bringing players through (some forced, many not) over the last 18 months but the whole thing has run out of steam over the last few months. Penny looks like a very shrewd appointment right now; a man with a good track record of coaching young players through. And there’s a lot of coaching to be done but there is a decent cohort of young players who have bright futures.

  5. HenryFitz

     /  May 15, 2012

    Munster won’t have to wait that long for success. Most of the rebuilding work has already been done. The back-row has a decent pedigree, with 3 underage internationals coming through (O’Mahony, O’Donnell and Butler) who are about a year to a year and a half behind the Welsh backrow in development; Ryan and O’Connell will be one of the best locking pairs in Europe while we wait for Foley, Hayes and Dave O’Callaghan to mature (Nagle is Munster’s shorter version of the underpowered Toner). Kilcoyne, Archer and Ryan are decent props coming through, and the two Saffers aren’t bad for a temporary fix. Sherry had one bad game, but looks the business. Outside that pack, the best scrum-half in Ireland, a former Irish U20 outhalf who won the Grand Slam, the fastest rugby player in Ireland, a Lion, two All-Blacks, the most breakable full-back in history and the altogether solid and dependable talents of Murphy and Hurley. Add in a coach with a history of excellence, particularly in developing and conditioning players for the highest levels of the game, and it’s really not looking too bad. Leinster aren’t turning out 15s much more impressive than that, and will be well within the crosshairs for next season.

    Also, Ulster’s smash-and-grab raid to Thomond doesn’t suggest a pattern of dominance to me, particularly in view of the hockeying their subs and youngsters were given a month or two later. Sure, Leinster have a lot of talent coming through and have the strongest squad going, but the same cannot be said of Ulster. I’ll lay money that Munster will finish ahead of Ulster in the Rabo next season, and I’d be surprised if Ulster aren’t found out once or twice in their transition between gameplans. Get found out twice, and they’ll be out of the HC.

    • Good to see a glass-half-full man amid the hand-wringing going on in Munster at the moment. I’m not convinced though, and listing players 1-15 and how great each one is generally doesn’t really butter our parsnips. You could write a similar eulogy for the Cardiff Blues. It all sounds great, but then why did Munster perform so averagely this season when most of what you mention was already in place?

      A year and a half behind the Welsh back row? Tommy O’Donnell is 25 – he should be coming into his peak, but he’s still on the periphery. Chris Henry – a player deemed surplus to international requirements – smashed him off the park on Munster’s own patch. He’s a Pro12 footsoldier. Butler and O’Mahony have a bit more about them but they’re still learning their trade. It’ll take a while to make potential European chamions out of their raw talents.

      • HenryFitz

         /  May 16, 2012

        ” It all sounds great, but then why did Munster perform so averagely this season when most of what you mention was already in place?”

        The result against Ulster defined the season as one of relative failure, and the freakish result against Ospreys added a dash of humiliation. That does not however invalidate the empirical evidence of all the other games. 3rd in the league. 6 wins out of 6 in a strong HC qualifying pool. Should a few things have gone their way against Ulster, it would have been a great season for a side in transition. So it goes.

        On a side note, too much has been made of Ulster’s backrow dominating Munster’s whilst only managing to secure 30% possession. If they really had been that brilliant, they would surely have pilfered more. O’Donnell had an okay game for his first HC start. He was outshone by a more experienced player who was never knowingly onside. All this talk of smashing did not seem to take place in actuality, though Henry’s prominence in spoiling a proportion of Munster’s 70% possession must be acknowledged to be greater than O’Donnell’s in spoiling whatever part he managed of Ulster’s meagre 30%.

        • The pool wasn’t as difficult in practise as it looked in prospect – Saints not team they were last season, the Scarlets turned out to be a one-show pony and Castres are bunnies who gave up their home game – even Keith Wood said they weren’t great. And, lets be honest, had Rog not nailed that last minute drop, both Saints and Munster would have carried that into the next week and it could easily have ended in another group exit.

          On Chris Henry – he has had a good season, but he is 27 and has one cap in a nothing tour – lets not go overboard on him…

      • HenryFitz

         /  May 16, 2012

        The margins were fine. Northampton and Munster’s seasons diverged on that last-minute drop-goal. But if we’re going to talk revisionism, then Leinster have hardly been tested all season. Munster at home, Montpellier away, Clermont in the semi. That’s it. Bath were shocking and Glasgow uninspired. Cardiff were piss-poor. If Wesley Fofana had grounded that ball in the semi-final, what consolation would a runaway Pro12 victory have been to them? About the same as Munster’s in 2009 or last year, I reckon. Like Munster, their entire season would have been viewed through the prism of their eventual failure, and all their other achievements would have been called into question. That’s the way it goes I suppose, but it’s more narrative than analysis.

        • The margins were fine for sure, they often are in rugby (and indeed sport in general!). Munster fell on the wrong side of them this year and Leinster and Ulster on the right side (so far), and them’s the breaks. So let’s leave the ifs and buts for now. Our point remains that Munster didn’t perform particularly well this season. They look a bit muddled. Leinster and Ulster at least have a recognisable style that readily defines them. Munster certainly used to, but have lost it. Penney’s role, as we see it, will be to build one around the core of players we mention in the post. But these things take time and I think it’ll be at least a season or two before Munster become formidable again. The aura around the team, and around Thomond Park has gone and needs to be won back.

          Agree with plenty of your points by the way. Munster’s squad is deeper than Ulster’s, and the challenge for Ulster’s coach is to build a squad that can withstand injuries and compete on both fronts (they won 12 out of 22 in the Pro12 this year). And we’re very much on record as having said Leinster’s march to the semi-finals was against pretty weak opposition. That said, any side that overcomes Clermont in the south of France is worth its place in the final, however close the margin.

  6. P White

     /  May 16, 2012

    Credit needs to be given for producing easily the seasons best recently retired pundit in Alan Quinlan.

    • No doubt. A terrific column, offers a real insight. Quinny has that self-doubt and edginess that would never allow him to become another ex-pro cheerleader. Piece today about pre-final nerves made me edgy just reading it.

  7. @whiffofcordite and @HenryFitz
    I agree with Henry that there is a decent amount of talent at Munster at the moment. There’s also Sean Dougall coming into the backrow next season, who just one player of the year at Rotherham. (Need to find a good ball carrier for the pack though).

    Something that struck me against the Ospreys was some of weaknesses in basic skills. I think O’Donnell had the ball ripped from his hands three times. Sherry knocked on in contact and had the ball ripped. Ryan sometimes carries the ball into contact too high.

    There’s a lot of coaching to be done, which is one of the reasons Penny looks like a good appointment.

    I must say I’m getting a little tired of the “if ROG hadn’t gotten the drop-goal, Munster’s season would have been a disaster” logic. That’s a totally imponderable line of thinking. Nobody can possibly know what would have happened in the event of Munster loosing that game. They may have gone on to lose every pool match in ignominy. The may have won their other 5 games anyway, qualified as 2nd seeds and beaten Cardiff in the QF. Either scenario is fantastic and unhelpful. He did kick the goal, they did win all their pool games (inducing hockeying last season finalist on their patch). You can’t move forward from where you could have been, only from where you are.

    You don’t see Ulster saying they would have been out in the Pool stage if Brock James had kicked his points in Ravenhill, they’re just preparing for a final.

    • @DramaticIntro Agreed in the main. We are not fans of ‘ifs and buts’ ourselves and only offered that as a counterpoint to HenryFitz’ line that ‘had things gone their way against Ulster’ it would have been a succesful season and simliar reasonin about Leinster and Fofana’s mis-finish. Perhaps we should just keep any what-ifs out altogether. As we said before, margins may be tight, but you have to come down on the right side of them!

      @HenryFitz I suspect that we’re not that far apart. We said ourselves that we think Munster have good players, it’s coalescing them into a cohesive whole greater than the sum of their parts that’s required, and there’s some experience to be gained – teams tend not to ascend to greatness without a few painful defeats along the way.

      • To be clear, I wasn’t accusing you guys of being revisionist. There are just been a lot of people who have become quantum physicists since Friday night. They have looked into alternate universes and seen the consequences of actions that never took place.

        You guy aren’t that far apart, but it’s all about the fine margins 😉

    • HenryFitz

       /  May 16, 2012

      Yes, we’re probably not that far apart. Munster lost their way post-Christmas, with McGahan doing an anti-McLaughlin and saying he was going no matter what the result, and a raft of other retirements and departures to distract the squad. Still, they were not that far away, and I see no reason for undue pessimism or for the doleful eulogies to which they’ve been lately subjected. They came out the wrong side of a tight one does not = there is no hope for success in the near future. The Ospreys defeat was painful and educational, but what kind of consolation would another snaffling of the bridal bouquet have been anyway? The Os wanted it more than Munster, with the ripping of the ball from Munster players signal of the difference in desire for said bouquet.

      For a mostly youthful team, who’ve already proven themselves good enough to get to a Heiney Quarter, there is no reason to rule out further improvement, and a possible Semi or Final next year, all things going well. That is the point I have been trying to make, less succinctly than I should have, probably.

  1. Penney Passes First Test « Whiff of Cordite
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