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.