It is a couple of days since Munster Rugby bowed out of the Guinness Pro14, a semi-final playoff loss to Leinster Rugby, a loss where the attacking side of the ball saw only one line break, a loss where Leinster Rugby’s front row engineered an opening try that settled the contest. It has been a tough end to the season for the men in red. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the season and ponders how the side can improve and progress next season.
Folks have dwelt enough on the doom and gloom at the province but let us review the season as a whole. Munster Rugby were yet again at the business end of European and Domestic competition.
The European Cup pool was a tricky one to negotiate for various reasons. Exeter Chiefs and Gloucester Rugby provided physicality and skill set while Castres were uncompromisingly cynical in their approach against the Irish province.
There are sides in the off season right now who would love to be in Munster Rugby’s position. It is the sheer high expectations at the club that there is a sense of disappointment in the semi-final playoff losses. A good place to be, everyone looking to improve and get to the next level which is win silverware.
Thomond Park and Irish Independent Park were fortresses this season. Munster Rugby went unbeaten in both venues; the atmosphere in the Cork venue was exhilarating on those Friday night games. Thomond Park came alive at crucial stages; think back to the Glasgow Warriors home fixture where it looked like Munster Rugby were on the ropes only for Rory Scannell to rescue the fixture with that superb long range penalty.
The Munster Rugby side saw several promising youth prospects get their opportunity to impress. It was great to see the likes of Calvin Nash, Dan Goggins and Fineen Wycherley get their opportunities. Several other underage players impressed on the road trip to Benetton Rugby at the back end of the regular season; the underage talent pool in the province is producing talent and it will be interesting to see how these players coupled with the emergence of players such as Craig Casey fare next season.
The scrum and defensive structures were plus points personally this season. The scrummaging more often than not provided a good platform for the team to attack opposition. The defensive line speed and structure was quite impressive this season for long periods and the ability to not concede penalties at the death against Edinburgh Rugby and Benetton Rugby was commendable.
The business end of the season. The playoffs continues to be a source of great frustration and concern for management, players and supporters. The playoffs this season in both European Cup and Guinness Pro14 action saw prevailing themes.
The line out was exposed at key intervals by Saracens and Leinster Rugby. The consistency of the set piece is a key improvement area for the side; surprising given the line out options in the side with the likes of Kleyn, Beirne, Holland, O’Mahony.
The side struggled in these playoffs to bring a clear attacking game plan to the table. One out runners was the predominant attacking methodology, look to smash their way through opposition but minimal momentum generated in ruck ball distribution and ball carrier line speed, this threat was quickly gobbled up by opposition.
The lack of game time collectively this season for Murray and Carbery. Both players had injury plagued seasons and unfortunately when it came to the business end of the season, the lack of game time was exposed. The kicking game was nullified by opposition and it was used against Munster Rugby particularly against Saracens.
Murray and Carbery if fully fit next season will provide more continuity in attacking play for the province but for this to succeed, the side need to review their ruck ball delivery and clear out work as at times, opposition were able to quickly stifle any momentum that Munster Rugby tried to build in the attacking sense from the breakdown area.
When you consider the back line unit throughout the season, the word that comes to mind is ‘change’, change in terms of personnel changes either in the three quarters or back three. You can get away with it for so long until you face an opponent who are so well drilled (Saracens / Glasgow / Leinster) that the level of cohesion and continuity is exposed.
Wondering also about whether the team peaked too soon again this season? Their best rugby in past seasons has been left in the start of the calendar year and the side have looked to be out of ideas and legs for the playoff push. I am not sure how this can be addressed; the side looked jaded particularly in those playoff games against Saracens, Benetton Rugby and Leinster Rugby down the stretch.
It is not like management have not used squad rotation this side but the side’s attacking lines lacked any significant bite down the stretch; the running lines and distinct lack of ball carrying support runners were standout moments from this year’s playoff run. Players’ confidence was dented on the attacking side of the ball.
The media hounds have seen the failure of Munster Rugby not to reach the summit this season and they have been unapologetic in their assessment. The coaching departures of Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones represents a chance for Munster Rugby to evaluate what their game plan will be next season. Great players and coaching tenures from both men.
Does this team go back to a Rob Penney style of rugby (people have short memories on how the Rob Penney era ended?). Does the team look to make subtle changes to the attacking and defensive setups to get to the next level? The coaching selections that Munster Rugby and Johann van Graan are faced with are critical. I detect that it could be the latter.
The rumors of Graham Rowntree as a potential defensive coach is positive news; his experience with club, county and British & Irish Lions is vast and his set piece knowledge could prove an invaluable tool for the side long term if appointed.
The backs coach is an intriguing appointment. Does van Graan look to his native country to recruit or does the IRFU / Munster Rugby have someone in mind?
Mike Ruddock personally is a guy that should be getting an interview at least. A vastly experienced, well respected head coach. His ethos on the attacking side of the ball seen with Lansdowne in recent seasons; they have been a joy to watch with their endless ball carrying support lines along with excellent ball carrier line speed and quick ruck ball distribution.
The appointments have to be considered; the quick buck option will not do. The frustration is building among the squad members who have been with the club for a long period. They see their window of opportunity to win silverware slowly disappear and the sights of Saracens and Leinster Rugby winning with a bit to spare makes these coaching appointments all the more significant.
The supporters will look on with interest; the supporters will always support the side. Munster Rugby yet again delivered quality standout moments throughout the season but the failures in the post season this year has to be the catalyst for the province to reflect and make the prudent steps to improve the side and organization to get to the next level.