Bloody Foreigners

These bloody foreigners, coming over here, stealing our jobs. Especially in rugger. Wasn’t so long ago Ireland had a foreigner as captain (Dion O Cuinneagain) and the NIQs were coming in to teach us how to be good rugger players and explain that recovery from injury didn’t involve going on the lash – who knew?!  John Langford, Shaun Payne, Pippo Contepomi, Rocky Elsom, Johan Muller, etc have all passed through and left deep wells of knowledge.

But now we have largely succeeded in making the provincial playing pools more Irish – NIQs are now limited in scope and number, and the days of big name signings are gone (except in Connacht). Getting the balance right is never esay – the national side won a Six Nations this year, but the provinces are finding it increasingly tough against the French moneybags, possibly soon to be joined by English moneybags.  It’s a constantly shifting target and not easy to hit.

And we are still a little touchy about foreign players – when Joe Schmidt announced his squad this week, he had to defend the selection of Robbie Diack, who has qualified as a project player up at Ulster – here’s what he had to say:

“That’s a question for people over and above me. Players are either available or they are not. I think if Bundee Aki plays well and qualifies in three years, time he will be available to whoever is coaching the Irish team at that time to be selected. If they change the rules he may not be. As it stands at the moment I think there are some very good indigenous players and the vast majority of the squad is made up of those players.”

Now, there is an element of self-interest in some of those questions, as it was in the context of not selecting the likes of Tommy O’Donnell, Irish-born, who had been picked during the Six Nations. When it comes to, say, Jared Payne, in November, given we don’t have a plethora of obvious 13 candidates, one doubts this barrier will be thrown up.

This is especially interesting this week – and this is the point we were trying to get to – as Munster formally anounced their coaching ticket for next season. And, intriguingly, it’s an all-Irish one. In spite of the IRFU’s desire to limit the influence of for’dners, Ireland just can’t shake its fondness for Southern hemisphere coaches.  Not long ago there were four Kiwi head coaches across four provinces; the only thing that changed since then is that one went on to manage Ireland and was replaced by… an Australian.  As we know, Munster have chosen not to extend Rob Penney’s contract in spite of two successive HEC semi-finals and the successful transition from the bestest tactical outhalf ivir like to .. Ian Keatley.  The Belvo boy appeared to have inherited a poisoned chalice in taking the torch from RADGE, but all the time knowing that a local boy was waiting to take it off him.  But he has played to levels unforeseen by many commentators (ourselves included).

What Penney has achieved is to instill an adventurous and sometimes coherent style of play from a province perceived as being more comfortable with boot-and-bullock HEAVE type stuff. The aforementioned Keatley, Peter O’Mahony’s captaincy, Conor Murray’s journey to the best scrummie in Europe, the pack’s technical excellence all happened under Penney. Divvying up the credits is never an easy business, but between the players themselves, Axel Foley and Rob Penney, it’s largely been two years of gains.  Rog’s retirement was weathered surprisingly well, Paul O’Connell remains a totem and Stakhanov briefly re-invented himself as a winger. Epic-ish Heineken Cup wins against Globo Gym, Harlequins and Toulouse after four years of limping out of Europe get chalked up in the credit column and the eventual defeats were suitably close to go into the ‘heroic’ column.

And yet – he has never really fit in. Some of the team of the noughties (let’s call them Liginds) have persistently sniped at him for imposing a gameplan that the province are uncomfortable with – to be fair, for vast tracts of Penney’s reign, Munster have looked toothless and often gormless – but they have delivered when it matters, and have improved in every facet of the game since he took over. Very few rugby teams look good every week, in what is an increasingly fragmented rugby season.  Joe Schmidt’s Leinster came closest to consistency in the Pro12, but they were the first team since Leicester to win back to back European Cups, a rare breed indeed.  It’s hard to say that his reign has been anything but a success.

As Matt O’Connor is probably learning, it’s always easiest to blame the out-of-towner, and even Gerry Thornley’s assessment on Second Captains when asked if there was ‘any shame’ in how Munster lost the Pro12 semi-final seemed a little pointed, and alot OTT.  Yes there was, he said, given the manner of how it happened because they ran out of play twice.  Really?  ‘Shame’ in losing by a point away to a team that has become adept at peaking at this time of the season, because they ran into touch twice in the last 10 minutes?  Jamie Heaslip ran out of play twice when Wales beat Ireland in the 2011 World Cup, but you probably didn’t hear as much about it.

This is the backdrop for the appointment of the current coaching team – who have done nothing wrong here, let’s remember. From the outside, it always looked like the province wanted someone to come in, retire a few big beasts, bring through a few youngsters then hand the keys over to Axel – and that’s what has happened. They probably didn’t expect Penney to do as good a job, which will be Axels’ problem as he tries to live up to those standards. Or not, as he should get a decent honeymoon period.

So – to the Irish coaching ticket (all-Munster in fact) – it harks back to Deccie’s first stint in charge of Munster with Niall O’Donovan and co – a salt of the earth old-skool club coaching ticket. Jirry has been brought in as scrum coach, Micko as “technical advisor”, Brian Walsh as attack coach and Ian Costello as defence coach. A nice balance between Cork and Limerick, with nary an outsider in sight.  Lunch is sorted, fellas, it’s hang sangwidges and tins of lilt out of the back of Axel’s car, and we can all have a chat about the rubbish road from Cork to Limerick!

Where are they coming from?

  • Axel: currently Rob Penney’s number two, has spent time in the national setup under Deccie and the Milky Bar Kid. Generally gets credit for the packs technical skills, and is generally felt to have done a good job with Ireland too.  Although Penney was also a forward, so the real driver will become clear next year
  • Jirry: coming from joe.ie Arsenal, where he was on the conditioning side. With due respect, Arsenal’s conditioning at key moments of this season wasn’t spectacular – but that can’t be all his fault. This feels like a key personality to get on board, even if it might take time to bed into a coaching role. He has been uncomplementary about Munster’s younger players in the past and appeared to take a dig at Mick Galwey on his way out the gate from his playing days.  Jerry seems like an interesting, forthright individual, but in the same way that Foley is always heralded for his rugby brain, Fla never seemed to be a great rugby strategist; more of an instinctive wild man in fact!
  • Micko: er, he’s, er, played for the Baa-Baa’s. And has apparently “shown promise” in the coaching sphere
  • Brian Walsh: involved in the Academy, but most experience is with Cork Con in the AIL, where he won the league a couple of times
  • Ian Costello: former A team coach and Academy man, sports science/UL background

One must say, it’s a big gamble – every member of the coaching staff will be making a step up to a position they have never been in before. Most coaching tickets you see appointed have a few grizzled veterans or older hands in there to offer continuity. The gamble Munster are taking is that Axel provides the continuity and the chaps with familiar faces and accents will takes to Munster like ducks to water, ensuring a seemless transition. We must also say, it’s great to see a progression path for younger Irish coaches.  And while it’s more inward-looking than outward, it’s not that out of step with the way Leinster have gone about appointing coaches.  Matt O’Connor, Joe Schmidt and Michael Cheika all arrived as young and unproven, acclaimed for their role as second-in-command but untried as head honchos (at a big team at least).

It’s going to be a pretty steep learning curve for all of the ticket. So how will it pan out? Our guess is it’s unlikely to end with Donncha O’Callaghan on the wing.  And while that’s the case, it is probably wide of the mark to anticipate that the ball won’t go beyond the No.9 either.  While it’s tempting to see Foley as the ultimate old-skool Munsterman, warming-up by keeping the heat on in the car and shovelling in the recovery pints after training, his being “steeped in the Munster culture” has to be weighed against his oft-cited smarts as a player, which are presumed to inform a technically astute coaching brain that will be more than capable of imposing a modern and highly effective gameplan on the province.  So perhaps the ‘return to traditional Munster values’ (TM – the Cork Con meeja) won’t be on the menu just yet.  This is where the real fascination lies.  Everyone has had their suspicions that Foley and Penney have never been entirely ont he same page, and theirs has been an uneasy allicnce.  The direction in which Foley points Munster should give us a nice retrospective angle on whether or not that was the case.

Foley inherits a squad which looks pretty good, and is on an upward curve.  The emergence of Dave Foley, Sean Dougall and CJ Stander in the late season adds real depth to his pack and he will hope to have Donnacha Ryan and Mike Sherry for more of next season than he did this, and a rejuvenated Tommy O’Donnell would be a big help.  Robin Copeland arrives from Cardiff and James Coughlan ain’t done yet.  The likes of Kilcoyne, Cronin and Archer will be a year older and presumably better.  He has no real issues at half-back or in the back three – unless the outstanding Conor Murray ever gets injured that is, but he’s not the only coach who’s goosed in that eventuality.  If the two largely unknown quantities at centre turn out to be halfway decent, he will have every opportunity to keep Munster competitive.

He can expect an easier ride in the media than Penney got, because there will be huge goodwill behind him, and, how shall we put this, most of the key pundits are great pals with him!  But Munster fans will be as demanding as ever, and he’ll be expected to at least hit the marks Rob Penney did over the last two years.

Step Backwards

After the HEC double-headers in December, we thought that Ulster were virtually guaranteed a knock-out slot, Leinster were pretty much gone, and that Munster had a pretty decent shot at a best runners-up slot. They had 11 points in the bag and had upcoming games against Scottish patsies Embra and flouncing Parisians RM92 at home – both glaring try bonus opportunities.

And the try bonus point is most relevant – 19 points looks like it might not be enough, but 21 will almost certainly do it. They managed to get 4 tries at home to Embra, and looked threatening in Paris first time out. Sure, they didn’t come close to the whitewash against Sarries, but hey, it was Saturday Night Fever in Thomond – who wants tries when you can have penalties slotted between the posts through cold foggy air and the tears of the assembled press box in near-deathly silence?

Here’s a problem though – in the aforementioned early rounds, master orchestra conductor, curer of the lepers and Lion-designate Ronan O’Gara (© Conor George) was playing close-ish to the gainline and looking like he was buying into the Rob Penney Barbarimunster masterplan. In the Saracens double-header, he played a little bit further back – but needs must and the 5 points gained were what was required.

But since then, Rog has drifted further and further back to the point were he was almost 15m behind the gainline in the recent Cardiff workout. Sure, his tactical kicking might have been as pinpoint as ever, but who cares when it’s exactly what the opposition want – Cardiff won their lineouts, kept the ball intelligently and won the match at their leisure. How can Munster score tries if their opponents have the ball?

This followed an inability to get a try-scoring bonus point against Ulster’s 2.5th team – another occasion when O’Gara was nearly stepping on Felix Jones’ toes.

How can Munster expect to score 4 tries in 2 successive games without the ball, and with an outhalf who looks like he is no longer even going through the motions of playing the gameplan his coach wants him to? It’s not all O’Gara’s fault of course, but he has virtually full control over his position on the pitch, and he isn’t attacking the line.

It’s far from a home run that Keatley is of the required quality to be the future of the 10 shirt at Munster, but that’s not necessarily the relevant question to be asking; the only important issue is whether Munster have a better chance of beating Edinburgh by four tries with Keatley or O’Gara at 10.  This isn’t necessarily clear-cut, but Keatley is a quick, strong fly-half with a decent running game, as well as being a strong defender.  Against that, ROG is more experienced, a better place kicker and better kicker from hand.  But with tries the requirement, it might be time to lean towards Keatley.  Such a move would inevitibly be met with a media scrum, and Penney is presumably aware of this.  But it’s time for tough calls.

P.S. amid the lengthy debate about where Penney’s vision is leading Munster, we’d be grateful if pundits were more restrained in their use of the phrase ‘return to core Munster values’.  Shane Horgan has been one of the only pundits to resist temptation to fall back on easy, meaningless platitudes, and pointed out on Off The Ball that the fruitless multi-phase attack that yielded no points late in the Saracens game was proof that Munster have to get away from their old game plan.  Certainly, Munster’s attack is lacking, but stuffing the ball up their collective jumper is not going to get it done.

The Munsters

A thought struck us during the recent HEC action – in their times of greatest need this season, the second half of the Embra game, the must-win home fixture with Saracens and the away-day bosh-up in Lahn, Munster have reverted to the type of rugby the province is most comfortable with – 10 man boot and bollock with rolling mauls, marauding backrow forwards smashing everything that moves and kicking for territory.

Thing is, Rob Penney came on board loudly promising to introduce a more expansive style of play, but it looks like he has tempered those plans.  After the Edinburgh game he talked about how the team being ‘un the put’ where they are having to learn a new way of playing, but when they eventually come out of ‘the put’ they will be so much the better for it.  But if they keep reverting to the old ways, will they ever get out of ‘the put’?

It’s worth thinking back to how the early promise of the Ludd McGahan era (recall the 43-9 beasting of a star-studded Ospreys side) crumbled into a mish-mash of styles as the coach struggled to get his ideas across to a team used to something different. Before you say, ah but McGahan was crap, note how the Wallaby side he is now defence coach for won 3 (vs England, Wales and Italy) and drew 1 (vs BNZ) of their 5 game Northern Hemisphere tour, while conceding just 5 tries despite a lorry-load of injuries – McGahan was a capable coach, but the message didn’t get across.

So is the Penney Revolution struggling to get air? Its obviously way too early to reach a definitive judgment, but there are some issues that he already needs to address:

The Forwards

While the current edition of the Munster pack has its plus points, it’s nothing like the pack of 2008 – only BJ Botha (for John Hayes) and Donnacha Ryan (for Stakhanov) would make the grade. For all their old school endeavour in the Thomond Park Saracens game, the McGahan problem of discipline came back to haunt them, and they essentially only won because Owen Farrell left his kicking boots at the IRB POTY ceremony. 

In the Vicarage Road game, the sight of Munster rumbling into contact and losing metres to a powerful bunch of forwards when they were a man up must have had Rob Penney tearing his hair out – they spent 4 minutes boshing and going backwards which ended in a wobbly drop goal attempt, and it was just the tactic Saracens would have welcomed. Why they didn’t try and use their extra numbers a bit more productively was mystifying.

The traditional Munster game is rather ill-suited to the current squad of forwards they have. And even if Penney gets his guys doing what he wants, do Munster have the ball carriers in the pack – they are fairly lightweight and only Cawlin and JC Stander would strike you as consistent getting-over-the-gainline guys.

The Backs

The Munster outside backs are most exciting, and using them to chase bombs is not really maximising resources – Earls, Zebo, Jones, Howlett and O’Dea look dynamite with ball in hand. It’s playing to your strengths to get them on the ball as much as possible instead of the comfortable, mucky repeated one-out rumbles into contact. At home to Saracens, who themselves have a high class backline, the most dangerous outside back by far looked like Keith Earls – but they never got him on the ball.

The Ireland-style aimless shuttling across the backline against Embra was easily repelled, with nary a dangerous angle or intelligent switch pass in sight. Simon Zebo must have looked at the type of opportunities the Ulster backs got in Northampton (Andrew Trimble running from blindside wing into first receiver and making a try for instance) and wondered would he ever get that chance in a big Thomond Park game.

Its hard to see it as a profitable long-term strategy to have your most dangerous players guarding rucks instead of passing and moving.

The Leader

Ah yes. The elephant in the room. Paul O’Connell is a massive leader, and one of the best captains Munster have ever had – he was perfect as the pack leader in the HEC years, and accepted nothing less than excellence in pursuit of success. Problem is, he actually isn’t that suited to the modern game – his ball-carrying is poor, and he does far too much of it. The Mole wrote about the sight of O’Connell calling one-out ruck ball to himself for Ireland, charging 70cm into contact, and forcing the likes of Fez and Jamie Heaslip to clear out the ruck – defences will take that all day long.

Does O’Connell have the desire to evolve his playing style at this stage of his career? His second row partner of so many red and green occasions is making a decent shift at it, despite not being in the same league as a player – but O’Connell has never been a follower. If he cannot adapt, and Penney prefers other players to execute his gameplan, he’s going to have a problem.

The Outhalf

Barnesy has talked about the flyhalf being the key cog in the machine, around which the spokes of wheel turn – his vision reflected how he played the game – head-up, looking for breaks and creating space – and was the reason why England preferred the more prosaic approach of Rob Andrew. That was the type of game they wanted to play. The illustration shows the problem for Rob Penney rather neatly. For his entire career, the Munster approach has been territorial, based on Ronan O’Gara putting the pack where they want to go. Penney wants to move on, but O’Gara simply does not have the skillset to execute a high tempo, handling based game any more.

Much as some might wish it not to be so, Ronan O’Gara is long past his best, and his on-field decision-making has deteriorated markedly in the last 12 months – he is nothing like the domineering figure of the past decade. Admittedly, his performance in Saracens was excellent out of hand, but in the context of a narrow gameplan and heavily unambitious opponents.

The reality is Penney is going to have to play someone else if he is to realise his vision – maybe Ian Keatley, maybe someone else altogether. The management of this issue, as we have said before, will largely define the success, or otherwise, of this season for Penney and Munster.

Culture

It’s clear how the senior players want to do it, and its getting results – they scored 4 tries in 40 mins against (an admittedly inept) Embra, and beat high-flying English/Saffer bosh overlords Saracens doing it their way. And after the success of the old approach against Saracens (home win and losing bonus point secured) – it’s going to be ever more difficult for Penney to further his case to the already sceptical dressing room bigwaigs now they can point to Munster’s 5 points against the English heavyweights. The mathematics of a defeat then 0 tries scored in 1.5 games of New Munster and 4 tries, then a win, then a losing bonus point in 2.5 games of Old Munster might look compelling, but there is a danger the wrong lesson will be learned. Munster might be well-positioned for a quarter-final slot, but what benefit would that be in the long term if they reverted to a gameplan that doesn’t suit their younger players (and future stars) to get there?

Its fine to say you need to earn the right to go wide, but that shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that you must win the set-piece first and only. Sure, its important, but manufacturing mismatches through intelligent running angles and offloading in the tackle to force more defenders into a ruck than attackers, thus creating numbers out wide, is far more relevant. If Munster go down to Toulon or Clermont in a HEC quarter-final with the mindset that they must win up-front before thinking about going wide, they will get mashed into the turf and badly beaten to boot. Leinster have showed in the last 2 seasons that a solid (if unspectacular) scrum and a good defensive lineout is more than enough to play an accurate and ambitious game – maybe the most important difference their is that was something the senior Leinster players not only were comfortable with, but welcomed.

On another point, the importance of the muck and bullets Shannon-type AIL style can be overdone at times – its a playing style from a different era which was succesful, but its highly unsuited to the current crop. And a perceived attachment by Munster fans to a certain style of play is nonsense – recall the reception Craig Gilroy got when playing Fiji – this is a chap who ruined Munster’s season last year, but his exciting and daring brand of rugby went straight to the hearts of the Thomond Park crowd. They swooned over him, and the cheer for him the next week in the Aviva was as warm and loud as the one for any player.

The fans who have got into Munster rugby in the professional era were fine with Craig Gilroy when they saw him play – they aren’t inherently wedded to any style – just a desire to win! Clearly Munster are in a rebuild phase, but the idea that they must play in a particular way, or its not really Munster is just untrue – their challenge is to play in a way which maximises their playing resources. The atmosphere in Thomond Park on a Saturday night will be equally as well-harnessed playing ambitious rugby as it is playing a fenzied forwards-based game.

Marrying a tough, if lightweight, looking pack to exciting and creative backs looks the only way forward for Munster if they want to win again in European rugby – the best teams, like Clermont, Leinster, Toulon, Leicester and Ulster, have mean-looking packs who can take you on up front, plus backs to finish it off – scoring in 3s isn’t going to win you the big pots.

One thing is for sure, unless Munster can find an identity they can move forward with, they aren’t going to move forward – the McGahan era petered out into embarrassments against Toulon and Ulster without a united front. Rob Penney has some young talent to work with, but a reversion to a game which works in the short term to the detriment of the long term is not a recipe for sustained success – maybe now is the time to make some painful decisions, which may be unpopular with senior players (and the media) and live up to the hard-ass reputation he has come over with.

2012/13 Season Preview: Munster

The new season approacheth!  We’re going to start off by looking at Munster.   An infinitely fascinating season awaits.  New coach, new players and hopefully a new era for the men in red.

Last Season: on the face of it, not bad. Top of their HEC group with 6 from 6 (we think, although we haven’t heard in a while – perhaps one of our Munster friends can confirm) and 3rd in the Pro12. A gut-wrenching defeat to Ulster in the HEC quarters confirmed Munster’s slippage in the pecking order, and a frightful beating from the Ospreys finished what Toulon started last year – the end of Generation Ligind.

Unfortunately, by the standards set by GL, this was a disappointing season, especially due to the nature of the defeats. Also, Leinster and Ulster contesting the HEC final didn’t improve southern moods.

Out: Ludd McGahan (coach – to Wallabies); Tomas O’Leary (London Irish); Leamy, Micko, Fla, Wally (retired), Yellow Card Magnet Lifeimi Mafi (some crowd of boshers in France)

In: Rob Penney (coach – Canterbury); Oooooooooooooooohh James Downey (Northampton); Casey Laulala (Cardiff); CJ Stander (Springbok underage flanker bosh factory), Sean Dougall (Rotherham)

All change at Munster. The embers of Generation Ligind which flickered out in Toulon have been blown away by the Osprey and Ulster winds of change. Since Toulon we’ve seen the exits (mostly to retirement) of Jirry, John Hayes, Micko, Denis Leamy, Wally, Ian Dowling, Barry Murphy and Tomas O’Leary and the exit from top class rugger of Marcus Horan, Strings and Stakhanov. Paul O’Connell is still going strong, but Ronan O’Gara’s form in the second half of the season was the worst he had shown in a red shirt in over a decade. Of the ligindary imports, Mafi has gone and Dougie Howlett turns 34 next month and is returning from a major injury. Add in the uncertainty over Felix Jones’ return to top form and you’ve virtually lost a first choice XV in 18 months.

The boss has gone too – Tony McGahan joining Dingo Deans team at Club Qantas Wallaby. Despite calls for a southern hemisphere big name like Wayne Smith to come in for two years to rebuild the side then hand it to Axel, former Canterbury underage coach Rob Penney will be taking the reins. Penney has a reputation as a no-nonsense kind of guy, and is already ruffling feathers, of golden child Keith Earls in the first instance (more anon).

On the playing field, the recruitment ranges from the bizarre to the intriguing. Looking at the squad from last year, you would have plotted a re-build around a core of Mike Sherry, BJ Botha, POC, Donnacha Ryan, POM, Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo. The strongest links there are Botha, POC and Keith Earls – with any of these three missing, it’s hard to see Munster getting the necessary wins on the road.

In Earls case, he has stated that he is sick to the back teeth of being moved around the backline, and has staked a claim to the 13 jersey as his ambition. Which makes it all the odder that Munster have recruited, and not for peanuts, former BNZ-er Casey Laulala from Cardiff – Laulala can pretty much only play 13 (though he has some experience at 12 and 11) , and it seems unlikely they have picked him for the bench. Here’s what Rob Penney had to say on that particular issue:

“In my discussions with Keith, we’ve got the ability to manage his needs and the team’s needs. Look, he’s a dedicated, committed team person. He’s made it very clear what his preference is and I respect that immensely. What we’ll endeavour to do is meet a majority of his needs within what the team needs are and hopefully he can just embrace that and get on and play for this team as well as he can so that he can further his international aspirations down the track.”

Riiiight. So Laulala will start at 13 by the looks of things. Then there is CJ Stander – this is a guy who has been earmarked as a future Springbok for a long time, who has now upped sticks to Munster to be their project player. To say it’s odd is an understatement – with all due respect to Ireland, young Afrikaaners do not grow up dreaming of wet Tuesdays with Deccie in Carton House. The likelihood is Munster have thrown a large wad of cash at him, persuaded him to put his Bok career on ice for a few years, and slotted him where they could – into the vacant project player role in this case.

It could go either way. Best case – he gives Munster the kind of go-forward carrier they lacked last season, balances the backrow well with POM and Cawlin while at 7, or Ronan and POM/Cawlin while at 6, frees up Conor Murray to carry less and pass more, and helps bring through some youngsters like Paddy Butler. The impact Pedrie Wannenbosh had at Ulster is a good comparison. Worst case – he marks the clock for two years and goes home at the first opportunity with a fatter wallet. Lets hope it’s the former. We don’t want to sound negative on it, but Stander is inexperienced and a lot is being asked of him – he’s talented and a good fit, but there is some Sykes risk in him.  It’s an unusual signing for a club which has put so much store in foreign recruits buying into what Munster rugby is all about [J. de Villiers (2009)].  There appears little chance of that with Stander.

Coming into Munster’s perennial problem position of inside centre is Oooooooooooohh James Downey, from the Saints. There are high hopes for Downey, but we fear they are too high. Downey is a pretty effective player, but he is essentially a journeyman and a one-trick-pony, and spent large chunks of last season behind Tom May in the Northampton pecking order. Even if he does play like he did in 2010-11, having a crash ball bosh merchant at 12 does not really suit either the kind of game Rob Penney apparently favours, or the galaxy of pretty decent outside backs Munster have – Earls, Zebo, Hurley, Jones and Howlett would be better served with a Paddy Wallace type at 12.  We can only presume he’ll be used in the same way that Saints deployed him, where any attempt to go wide is preceeded by a Downey smash up the middle.

On the plus side, Munster have a settled and powerful front 5, and the aforementioned outside backs. A front row of du Preez, Varley/Sherry, Botha won’t step backwards much and gets around the park a bit. The set-pieces will be solid, especially when you consider the second row combo. There isn’t much depth there, but the starters have class. Frankie has been banging the Dave Kilcoyne drum for a while – hopefully Stephen Archer and him get the chance to accumulate some experience this year in the engine room. Both South African props are technically excellent and the Irish deputies should be spongeing up as much of them as they can.  The importance of O’Connell cannot be overstated.  He’s the lightning rod in the pack, and while he’s increasingly prone to injury, when fit he’s still the best lock in Europe.  Munster need him to be available with greater frequency.

In the back three, Denis Hurley will get a chance to nail down the 15 shirt before Jones returns, and Simon Zebo will look to add more defensive solidity and greater nuance to his explosive attacking game. Howlett is the elder statesman, but he has value to add as the master of on-pitch defensive positioning – he has so much to teach the likes of Zebo and Luke O’Dea, and should be milked dry.

[Aside – our points about the props and Howlett give an insight into what foreign players can bring – add in the influence Wannenbosh had on Chris Henry, and you see it’s not all about on-field matters]

If Conor Murray reverts to his first half of 2011 form and Stander (or Butler) give the backrow a power jolt, the only other question mark is at 10. The incumbent is the mighty Ronan O’Gara, now 35. O’Gara has been the fulcrum of the Munster side for 13 years, but is finally showing signs of ageing – his effectiveness dipped markedly in the second half of last season (admittedly after a very productive first half). A new coach with a new direction would appear to be the perfect time to trial a new man and a new gameplan (in fact, on the face of it, it’s so blindingly obvious as to be the favoured course of action), but the notoriously competitive Rog is unlikely to accept being backup, nor is he likely to be diplomatic about it. Ian Keatley is presently the number 2, but he has yet to convince he has it at the highest level.

How Penney manages the succession in this key position may determine his legacy – O’Gara will probably start the season like a train in his determination to hold on to the Munster jersey until he is 58 38, but Keatley is going to get his chance sooner rather than later. If you see a Munster team line out for a HEC game with O’Gara wearing 22, postpone all other tasks – it will invariably get interesting.

On the youngster front, JJ Hanrahan is the NKOTB – he is an outhalf at present, but was a centre before his under-20 RWC performances, and it will be interesting to see what type of exposure he gets, and where. Munster have not had a settled and solid 12 since Trevor Halstead, and Hanrahan may yet be the solution there. Luke O’Dea will get more exposure on the wing, and in the pack, look out for Next Big Thing Ian Nagle, improving blindside Dave O’Callaghan and still-promising Tommy O’Donnell.

Verdict: Rob Penney looks a shrewd appointment.  His credentials are based on the number of high quality players he successfully delivered to the Canterbury Crusaders from the feeder team, as well as posing good results in the ITM Cup.  He seems to be aware that his role at Munster is to rebuild the team, but knows that it’s a results business and that Munster fans are tired at seeing Leinster win trophies and worried about Ulster stealing a march on them.

Munster are some of the way down the re-building path thanks to Ludd’s last 18 months, but where Ludd took a piecemeal, sticky-plaster approach to squad development, Penney will surely deliver something more cohesive.  But huge challenges remain, particularly at out-half.  Not only will it determine the style of play going forward, but the ease of Penney’s tenure will be largely decided by O’Gara’s attitude to his inevitable easing out.

Developing a coherent gameplan looks like the first port of call for Penney. Munster have gone from a 10-man team to all-cylinders attack to a mushy ineffective hybrid of slow ruck ball, lateral back play and first-man-out rumbles into the tackler. We never quite felt McGahan brought his vision to bear on the Munster team. With what is now a relatively inexperienced group keen to learn and improve, Penney should see his brand of rugby enacted on the field of play.  They need a sense of playing identity back – a style that becomes readily identifiable as Munster.

The fans might settle for a season which shows the groundwork for future success has been well-laid, if green shoots show well. And after the string of painful defeats in McGahan’s last two years (Toulon, Quins, Ulster, Ospreys), Munster fans will want to see their team do themselves justice in the big games.

We think it will be a difficult year, but one looked back on as the foundations of something better in retrospect. We fancy Sarries to top the HEC pool, but not with ironclad confidence – catching them is certainly not beyond Munster, but it’s likely to need O’Gara in vintage form and O’Connell 100% fit.  How they fare on the road is the big question, and the schedule has sent them to Paris in the first week to face Racing.  With Sarries still to come, they may need to return with a win.  We’re tentatively going for an Amlin excursion (but no silverware) and a top half finish (but no playoff) in the Pro12 – the absence of Micko will make it more difficult for the dirt-trackers to scratch out the kind of wins they have been getting in the last three years.  It’s the tough work that pays off in the end, and this season is about tough work for Munster – luckily the fans are on board, and Penney is likely to get an extended honeymoon period. Let’s hope they stay on board if he starts p*ssing of Radge or Keith Earls!

Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Five

The Game: Gloucester 3-16 Munster, 5th April 2008

What it Defined: the transformation of Irish provinces into all-conquering Europe-dominating machines, and in particular Munster’s period of dominance

The State of Play

The Heineken European Cup (then just the European Cup) began with a bit of a whimper in 1995.  The first season had no English or Scots, but one Romanian representative. Ulster,  Munster and Leinster threw their hats in the ring, and the IRFU was delighted to find something for its newly-minted employees to do. Leinster were the only Irish side to make it past the first round, but were beaten by Cardiff in the semi-final, in front of 7,000 (!) at Lansdowne Road.

The English and Scottish joined the next year, and that ruined any chance of immediate success for the Irish. No Irish province made the knock-out stages, which was a fair reflection of Irish rugby’s standing at the time – until the English took a sabbatical in 1998-99.

It was that year that the Irish finally got a taste for the competition. The absence of the English gave them crucial oxygen at a time when the moneybags English game had its jackboot firmly on the Celtic throat – leaving 1999 aside; Bath, Northampton and Leicester (twice) gave England four wins in a row. Ulster and Munster took advantage of the empty field, both making their knock-out debuts. While Munster fell at the next hurdle, Ulster went on to memorable success – the semi-final win over Stade Francais was the first of many Epics involving Irish sides, and the final was an unforgettable occasion, if a forgettable match – the first Irish success in the competition, albeit with an asterisk.

From that point on, for the next 10 and a bit years, the story of Irish rugby in Europe was bound up in Munster’s story. Sporadic success from Leinster merely masked a poor setup, and Ulster endured the worst years in their history.  Both played second fiddle to the all-conquering Liginds from the south.

It was all the more impressive for having started at a low base.  They will always remember the lowest low in Munster: Mick Galwey standing under the Toulouse posts, begging the lads to keep it below 60 (they did). But their capacity to learn and develop led them to higher and higher peaks.

In truth though, there were three Munster teams – the cohort of 2000 and 2002 were essentially a crowd of players who had straddled the amateur and professional eras, led by giants from outside. Munster rugby had always stood in greater contrast to Ulster and Leinster in that the club scene was the main development pathway, unlike the schools system elsewhere.  This meant that players like Peter Clohessy and Mick Galwey immediately brought the ethos of Limerick club rugby, which had dominated the AIL in the early 1990s, into Munster. Outsiders like John Langford and Keith Wood (remember, he played virtually his entire career in England) came in and channeled the latent talent into a team that could compete with the best.

That team’s finest hour was the 31-25 semi-final victory away to Toulouse in 2000, a remarkable result, and for many the day that Munster rugby as we know it was born.  It left them needing to beat an unremarkable Northampton team in the final, but in heartbreaking fashion, Munster let the game slip from their grasp.  The night before the game, the players had an emotional team meeting, with players reportedly in tears talking about the pride they felt in the jersey.  It backfired – the emotion was spent and the team were flat by the time they took the field of play.  The team that lost the 2000 final had a pack of Clohessy, Wood, Hayes, Galwey, Langford, Halvey, Wallace, Foley.

Two years later another final beckoned, but again Munster came up agonisingly short.  Unable to conjure up a try, they did manage to create a platform in the dying minutes with an attaking scrum, but… well, we all know what happened next.

The second great Munster team, the first to bring home the trophy, against Biarritz in 2006, had only Hayes, Wallace and Foley from the 2000 forwards – a serious amount of experience gone, but replaced by the next generation, typified by the aggression of Jirry Flannery, Paul O’Connell and Denis Leamy. The near-miss against Wasps in the 2004 semi-final – one of the greatest matches in the Cup’s history – was the crucible that forged that side.  Only six of the team that day started the 2000 final, but most of the newbies would still be there two years later. The 2006 team also had Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara years older and more experienced, and possessors of a couple of Triple Crowns – key players were now becoming accustomed to success.

Either side of that 2006 triumph, Munster limped out in the quarter-finals – still respectable no doubt, but it showed they weren’t yet complete. Their true peak came from 2008-2009, when they mutated into a machine, a match-winning juggernaut that was the best team in Europe, supplied more Lions than any other team, and at times seemed unbeatable.

In the 2007-08 tournament, Munster had a stinking draw, their toughest to date: champions Wasps, their 2007 conquerers Llanelli and French nouveau riche Clermont Auvergne. The group games were memorable, primarily for the bonus point in the Marcel Michelin that ultimately put them through.  The stadium would become a familiar venue for Irish bonus points (no wins!), and Munster laid the marker down.  In the final pool game they ground a cocky Wasps side into the dirt, ROG giving his much-vaunted opposite number, Danny Cipriani, a lesson in how to play cup rugby on a wet day.

Waiting in the quarter-finals were Gloucester – top of the Premiership and flying high in Europe. It was a familiar stage for Munster, but their last quarter-final win away from Thomond was five years previously, and they were second favourites.

The Game

This build-up will be remembered for Deccie’s two massive selection calls – Tomas O’Leary and Denis Hurley came in for Shaun Payne and Peter Stringer. Both turned up and justified Deccie’s faith – admittedly when you are playing behind a pack like Munster had, that is a little easier to do. This was classic management from a wily coach – changing from a position of strength, and ensuring the new players were being dropped into a settled, winning team.  Munster were utterly dominant after a slightly off-key start.  Chris Paterson was given several attempts to get Glaws off the mark, but uncharacteristically missed three times in the opening quarter.

After that, it was all Munster – the high-octane frenzied defence and aggressive and opportunistic attack that was to be their signature were both present here. Ian Dowling and Dougie Howlett crossed either side of half time, and Rog’s boot did the rest – it was 16-0 after an hour, and finished 16-3. The intensity and control of Munster’s display was breath-taking, and a harbinger of things to come.

For sure there were more iconic games and more miraculous matches, if you will, but while other games may have defined the Munster spirit and ethos to a greater degree, we have chosen this game because we feel it was the point at which they became a great team, who will be remembered for their trophy haul and not just their pluck. From this point, they didn’t need miracles, only a stage for their greatness.

The teams that day were:

Gloucester: Morgan; Paterson, Simpson-Daniel, Allen, (Ooooooh) Vainikolo; Lamb, Lawson; Wood, Titterill, Nieto; Bortolami, Brown; Buxton, Hazell, Naraway.

Munster: Hurley; Howlett, Tipoki, Mafi, Dowling;  O’Gara, O’Leary; Horan, Flannery, Hayes; O’Connell, O’Callaghan; Quinlan, Wallace, Leamy.

The Aftermath

Munster went on to win the trophy for a second time, narrowly winning a nervy semi-final against Saracens before dispatching the mighty Toulouse 16-13 in the final. The last 10 minutes of the final became Exhibit A in favour of tweaks to the ruck laws to prevent teams picking and going to wind the clock down, but that didn’t stop Munster on the day.  To those playing and watching it felt different to the 2006 win.  First time around the overriding emotion was of relief that, having had so many heartbreaking near-misses, they had finally reached their holy grail.  In 2008, it felt like the arrival of a truly great side; a European force.  The players felt they could enjoy the victory more the second time.

The next season, Munster were insatiable. By now Kidney had moved on, replaced by McGahan, but the transition was seamless.  Incredibly, they stepped up another level – the pool stages were a wash, Munster only losing one game (in Clermont) to earn a home quarter-final. That was the game they peaked – smashing an Ospreys team containing Tommy Bowe, James Hook, Mike Phillips and most of the 2012 Grand Slam Welsh tight five 43-9. Seven of the pack that day played in the 2006 final, but only two of the backs.  This Munster had a backline threat to go with their test-level pack.  Paul Warwick gave them a newfound spark of creativity in the back three, and their sparkling new centre, local boy Keith Earls was enjoying a terrific breakthrough season. The days of Munster as a 10 man team were in the past.

It was the pinacle of Munster 3.0 – with back-to-back Heiny’s seemingly at their mercy, they lost the semi-final that year to an unfancied Leinster (more of which anon). They were the most consistent team in Europe that year, but finished without the trophy (that’s Cup rugby for you), and they never quite recovered.  The following year, they were patchy at times, but roused themselves for a couple of memorable performances.  They ended a lengthy home winning record in Perpignan’s Stade Aime Geral, thrashing the hosts 37-14, from where they topped the pool.  They followed that with a memorable slapdown of Northampton in the quarter-final. It ended in the next round though; Biarritz ground them into the dust, exploiting the rapid de-powering of the front row to end the short-lived dominance of Munster 3.0.

The combination of the experienced and powerful pack built through campaign after campaign in Europe with the perfect 10, a breaking 9, the best centre partnership in professional Munster’s history and the All Black’s leading try-scorer was a potent mix – and it first came together that day in Kingsholm. Keith Earls and Paul Warwick would improve it further.  Their peak was a year later against the Ospreys, and their last hurrah another year later against the Saints.

They began a five season period where Irish teams went from a situation where they achieved occasional success, but more often heroic defeat, to one where they beat all comers – four HECs in five seasons (and counting) is testament to that. Despite beating them in 2009, Leinster definitively overtook them only in 2010-11, and by then Munster 3.0 had disintegrated into the rabble that succumbed so meekly in Toulon – Father Time and a reluctance to move on had seen to that.

They’ll be back, but the magic that started in Kingsholm will remain their high water mark for a long time.

Ludd McGahan Leaves A Mixed Legacy

Ludd McGahan’s departure from Munster won’t see too many tears shed among the Munster faithful.  He has never fully won over the fans in his time there, and for most it will be a case of ‘bring on the new era’.  His defenders will thank him for a good job, but won’t mind too much that he’s going deehn andah.

The truth of the matter is that McGahan’s task was a thankless, maybe even impossible one.  He took over Munster at a time when they were the dominant team in Europe, but had grown old together.  By his second season in charge, most of the core of his team were over the top of a pretty steep hill.  The only way was down.  Plus, he was taking over from Local Hero and Man of the People Declan Kidney.
To make matters worse, the previous management (of which he was a part, it must be said) had done little to manage succession.  Declan Kidney was hugely successful for Munster, but, as a coach, rarely looks too far beyond the next game.  As this superb dissection showed, during his time there, the academy produced next to no players of any quality.
Starter’s orders
The first few months of McGahan’s tenure went pretty swimmingly, though it’s hard to know how much to attribute to him, and how much was the continued good habits of a self-managing squad.  His first Heineken Cup game flirted with disaster, as Munster came within a whisker of losing at home to Montauban’s seconds, but they quickly got their act together, navigating the double header with Clermont Auvergne and dispatching Sale home and away.  They also nearly beat the All Blacks on a famous night in Thomond Park.  By now the Munster machine was purring.  They put together a stirring run of form in both competitions.  Even in the absence of their frontline players – traditionally a time for Munster to fold like a cheap suit – the likes of Mick O’Driscoll and Niall Ronan kept the show on the road.  The 22-5 beating of Leinster and the 43-9 crushing of the Ospreys in the quarter-final were arguably the very peak of their powers.  The Lions selection reflected their machine-like brilliance, and retaining the H-Cup appeared a formality.
Rise of the Blue Meanies Part I

Then something strange happened.  A thoroughly unfancied Leinster, fed on scraps of their horrendous press and the meeja’s Munster love-in, beat them 25-6 in the semi-final.  It was a game which effected a profound change on Irish rugby, and it took Tony McGahan and Munster a long time to recover. 

Over the next 21 months the rot set in.  The following year saw Munster win 9 out of 18 games in the Magners League, somehow squeezing into the newly minted semi-finals, where they were beaten by – not you again – Leinster in a game they never really threatened to win.  It was their third defeat of the season to their rivals – the first was a humiliating 30-0 thumping at a white-hot RDS, and the second a rare loss on their own Limerick patch.   In the Heineken Cup, Munster huffed and puffed, but made it to a semi-final, but  succumbed to a pretty ordinary Biarritz.  Sheer muscle was all Biarritz had, and Munster had nothing to stop it.
Goodbye Generation Ligind
Worse trouble was brewing: Generation Ligind were coming to the end of the road.  Marcus Horan and Denis Leamy’s powers were vastly reduced, John Hayes could give no more, Alan Quinlan was finished as a starter and Jirry Flannery was about to be ruined by injury.  Paul O’Connell was injured and Donncha O’Callaghan was never all that great in the first place.  Almost nothing had been done to ensure the next generation of would-be liginds was in place.
The chickens came home to roost in a disastrous campaign in 2010-2011.  Munster (and Ireland, crucially, for it tied Munster’s hand)  pinned their hopes on Tony Buckley to take over from John Hayes as the country’s premier only tighthead.  Buckley had come off the back of a successful summer tour, where he was one of few players to emerge with credit following an outstanding display of hard carrying and soft hands in New Plymouth.  But there was one problem: he couldn’t scrummage.  Munster lost carelessly to a poor London Irish side and, critically, to Ospreys, with Adam Jones winning the man of the match award without touching the football.  Faced with needing to win in Toulon, Munster went in to meltdown, turning in a shambolic performance and taking a thorough pounding.
Redemption!  Well, sort of
It looked grim for McGahan, and defeat at home to a young Harlequins side in the Amlin Cup was a nadir, but McGahan finally did what he should have done a long time ago and began to dispose of Generation Ligind.  In came some bright new things: Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony, Simon Zebo and Donncha Ryan.  The Magners League was secured in style, beating newly crowned European kingpins Leinster. In this season’s Heineken Cup, Munster are set fair with a home quarter final and potential home semi-final.  Their maul and lineout are back to something like they used to be, and the scrum rejuvenated by some prime Saffa beef.  But you can’t help but feel McGahan is something of a punch-bag.  When things were going badly, he took the blame; now they’ve picked up, new forwards coach and all round ligind Axel Foley gets the credit.
The natives still aren’t happy though.  Despite winning six from six in the group stages, there’s a feeling that Munster haven’t played terribly well.  They no longer dominate opponents, and tend to eke out wins.  Increasingly, the twin totems of Radge and POC drag the team kicking and screaming to victory.  But, hey – it was ever thus.  Remember Munster’s peak in 2008 & 2009?  It wasn’t all barnstorming victories.  Those with short memories might have forgotten fortunate wins at home to Clermont and Montauban in 2009, and a decidedly shaky semi-final against an unheralded Saracens side in 2008.
Rise of the Blue Meanies Part II
We think it’s fair to conclude that while McGahan hasn’t brought the house down, he has done a decent job in difficult circumstances.  The ire with which he’s regarded in some parts of Munster perhaps has more to do with what’s happening in the blue corner than his own.  Munster fans probably wouldn’t mind a spell of being a bit rubbish, if it didn’t coincide so totally with Leinster’r rise, both on and off the pitch.  When McGahan took over Munster, Leinster were seen as a bit of a joke.  If you’d told fans of either province how the next three seasons would pan out back in 2008, nobody would have believed you.
Back to the Future
We’ll be taking a detailed look at what the Munster job entails later this week.  For whoever comes in to the role, by far the biggest task will be replacing Radge, for two reasons.  First, they have to find someone capable of being as good as him, and there aren’t too many 10s out there that are his equal.  Secondly, at some point they have to phase him out (succession and all that).  As Deccie has found with Ireland, this is harder than it looks.  He has managed part one, but part two is harder.  Any time you lose with Radge on the bench, you can bet his legion of admirers will castigate you for it.  Radge himself is not likely to hand over the shirt too readily, and isn’t shy of doing his bidding in publicIf Munster can manage that most onerous of tasks (they may need to look overseas), they look to just about have enough talent coming through elsewhere to keep them competitive for the medium term.

Strings, Strings, he’s our Boy, if he can’t do it, Tomás will

The Ludd Revolution at Munster continues to grind on – retirements and injuries have knocked a few of the Liginds off, one was dropped this year (Donncha), and last week, for the first time, one of them left Munster by choice, albeit temporarily for the time being.
Strings has jumped ship, gone to join Sarries– the very anthesis of Munster – on a three month loan deal.  Perhaps it’s cathartic for him. He was no ordinary player – iconic for his size and bravery, and he won it all with province and country, and deserves better than to play out his last days in the British & Irish Cup.
Stringer was one of the five new caps introduced by Gatty against Scotland in 2000. From that moment until “Georgia” he was undisputed first choice for Ireland.  The overlap with his Munster first choice career was remarkable – for only 6 months either side of his Ireland career was he the red 9 of choice.
If you think of the landmarks in Irish rugby in that period – Munster’s European breakthroughs from 1999-2004, Ireland’s Triple Crowns, the win over England in Croker, the first HEC, the Grand Slam – Strings was there for them all. Yet there must be some caveats … and there is.
Strings’ professional career was largely governed by two men – Eddie and Deccie – and neither quite trusted him 100%.  At national level, Eddie frequently called up duff scrum halves and gave them gametime (Neil Doak, Kieran Campbell, GuyEasterby), not something he was ever renowned for in other positions. Then after the Namibia/Georgia debacles in France ’07, it was Stringer alone who paid the price, getting the curly finger for Eoin Reddan.
In Munster, Strings was dropped by Deccie as soon as Tomás O’Leary’s pass wasn’t absolutely terrible. Stringer’s much superior passing and game management were sacrificed in favour of O’Leary’s physicality and breaking. The circumstances of the chop were astonishing – a coach known for his conservatism replaces a mainstay of the team for an away HEC quarter-final! It was a shrewd call but nonetheless it was, and remains, cruel, and a sad way to effectively end Stringer’s career as a starter.
Stringer didn’t even get off the bench for the rest of that HEC knock-out campaign, and his next start of note was the semi-final against Leinster in 2009 – and we know how that went.  He started three pool games last year in O’Leary’s absence, but the last of those – the dismal capitulation in Toulon – more or less signalled the end of his Munster career as a frontline player.
It’s also a fact that when Ireland (the Grand Slam and the Springbok game in Croker were the peaks) and Munster (who were imperious in the 12 months from the Gloucester game) peaked, Stringer wasn’t in the team. The solid extra dimension of O’Leary (combined, it must be said, with the stinking ELVs) gave Ireland and Munster what they needed to get to the next level.

All the best to the wee man in Watford, and how ironic is it that Stringer’s most memorable contribution to Irish rugby was doing that what he apparently couldn’t do (Ryle: ‘He can’t make a break?!  Well, he’s just made one in the Heineken Cup Final!’:

Team in Focus: Munster

Last season: A curate’s egg.  For the first time, Munster failed to make it out of their HEC group, and were lamentable in their pivotal game in Toulon.  The sight of their scrum being shunted around the park and a collective loss of discipline appeared to mean the jig was up for McGahan.  But Munster salvaged a difficult year with a Magners League win, with particular satisfaction derived from beating their rivals to secure it.  The long and painful transition to a new era spearheaded by the likes of Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Felix Jones looks to have begun.

Season so far: business as usual, with five wins from seven in the Pro12. From a rudimentary scan of headlines in the Indo, Peter O’Mahoney appears to have cured the lepers and turned water into wine.

Prospects: This is a huge season for Munster, with one overriding objective: re-establishing themselves in Europe.  The Heineken Cup has always been the lifeblood of the province, and despite finishing with silverware last year, for most fans the season was a disappointment.  Failing to get to the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup just shouldn’t happen to Munster, and it never happened to the liginds.

It’s an objective that looks increasingly difficult.  Munster have been drawn with Northampton, beaten finalists last year, and travel to Castres (second in the Top 14) in Week Two.  A much-fancied Scarlets side makes up the group.

What sort of Munster team will be put out to face these sides?  A pretty unfamilar one, all told.  Generation Ligind, essentially the pack and halves that delivered two Heineken Cups, has all but passed into the next world.  Quinny has gone, Hayes and Horan will be bit part players, Flannery’s future is less certain than ever and David Wallace’s injury robs them of their primary carrier.  Dennis Leamy, no longer anything like the powerful, aggressive player of four years ago, may not make the team and Peter Stringer is now third – maybe fourth – choice scrummie. Stalwarts like Donncha are starting to fade, and the production line is not quite what it should be – Munster under-20s are poor, and have been passed out by Connacht.

The front row will likely be du Preez, Varley and Botha.  The success of the scrum entirely depends on Botha staying fit and in form.  His last season at Ulster was marred by injury and mediocrity; Munster will hope they have the 2009 version.  A creaky Munster scrum is nothing new, of course, but they are used to putting out top class second and back rows.

Paulie can still mix it with the best, and is fit and flying – he was missed hugely in the early stages of the HEC last year. Micko has been performing very creditably (and at a level above Donncha) for two years now – his experience will be a useful asset, though he may take a back seat to allow the likes of Donnacha Ryan is and Ian Nagle more gametime. Nagle is a prospect, but still a little underpowered, but is – he’s unlikely to feature at HEC level this year, but we are hoping Ludd gives him some Rabo action.

Moving back, the glory days of the Quinny-Wally-Axel axis are a dim and distant memory – the 2012 unit is likely to be Ryan/Leamy-O’Mahony-Coughlan.  Ryan seemed to finally break into the first team last year and played fairly well on World Cup duty with Ireland, but the jury is still out – he has only one HEC start, and that was in defeat to London Irish.  Coughlan is an honest, hard-working journeyman, but struggles against the better sides.  Peter ‘the son Hugh Farrelly never had’ O’Mahony is the wildcard – Munster fans had better hope he’s half as good as Farrelly thinks he is – otherwise they’ll be taking on Saints with the ineffectual Niall Ronan at openside. Paddy “Slievenamon” Butler was a barnstorming underage number 8 a few years back, but he hasn’t made it past first base yet – we’re hopeful he can breakthrough for some Rabo games at least.

At half, Conor Murray will likely own the 9 shirt for big games, unless Tomás gets back to 2009 form – and we aren’t optimistic on that front. ROG still has the fire, no doubt there, but he’s 34 now. As one of rugby’s most forthright, intelligent (and divisive) men, he will be aware managing succession is crucial to sustained success, but don’t expect him to be helping Keatley into the 10 jumper just yet.  Munster’s hopes will rest on ROG’s ability to turn dirty, slow ball into scores. Again. It’s not code red yet, but this looks like a potential problem position for Munster in two years’ time unless Keatley can prove himself HEC standard.

Outside the halves, it’s a huge pity that Felix Jones is injured; he added much to Munster’s attack in the second half of last season.  At centre – a problem position last season – Tuitupou has been swapped for Will Chambers, signed from Queensland Reds.  It should be an improvement (lets face it, Chambers would have to be pretty bad to be worse than Tuitupooooooooooooooohh), but a lot rests on the young shoulders of Danny Barnes.  There’s Lifeimi Mafi too, who was superb in the ML final last year, but hopeless (and pretty dirty) for most of the campaign. Keith Earls has class with ball in hand, but moving him around is guaranteed to maximise defensive mistakes – Ludd and Axel (and Keith) need to decide what they want him to be – he looks a winger to us, but many in the Cork Con Mafia media are convinced otherwise.

All told, it’s not a side to strike fear into top-class opponents the way the 2004-2009 vintage did.  Northampton will fancy themselves in the opening week visit to Thomond Park.  Munster will be relying more than ever on the great warriors Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara to navigate them through the tough games – it may be too much to ask.

Forecast: We think Munster will ultimately come second to Northampton.  The two will probably trade wins, and Thomond Park will remain a fortress, but Munster will probably need to get two wins on the road, and we just can’t see it.  In the Pro12, Munster’s ability to consistently churn out results against weaker sides will stand to them, and it’s impossible to see the semi-finals without them.  Another tilt at silverware is inevitable, but they may come up just short this time.