Munster Rugby: A Season In Review

“You know the worst thing about it? Johann – I really like Johann,” the Ulster boss said. “I get on really well with him. I think he’s a really good coach. He’s such a nice fella. Those last two conversations with him after games? It’s just terrible.

“He’s done a really good job in Munster. I believe he’s done a really good job in Munster. Yeah, they haven’t played well the last two games but the bottom line is, you can’t expect both teams that played out here to win. That’s ridiculous. One of us was going to lose. And yet in the morning I read doom and gloom, what they’re doing is terrible. But somebody’s got to lose.

Dan McFarland Ulster Rugby head coach

This quote was an interesting take. This was immediately after Ulster Rugby delivered in the playoffs blowing Munster Rugby away in a 36-19 victory. Dan McFarland lauding Johann van Graan as the South African departs Limerick for Bath this summer.

It was akin to an ‘all the best Johann for everything’ interview. Johann van Graan leaves Munster Rugby. No silverware won but there were two European Cup semi-final appearances, three Pro14 semi-finalists and a final where Leinster Rugby dominated. The era created several moments of promise but ultimately disappointment prevailed at vital junctures of each season.

In this article, Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the Munster Rugby season that was. What stood out as highs and lows? Graham Rowntree is now the Munster Rugby head but will he get the full support of the Munster Rugby hierarchy to achieve his objectives?

A miserable end to the van Graan era

This playoff fixture last Friday in Kingspan was a stark contrast in performance levels. Ulster Rugby players completely vested in their game plan and head coach ethos.

Munster Rugby looking off in all aspects, a side devoid of composure defensively and with ball in hand. A team who looked for the season to be over to start a fresh in the summer.

Yet another tough end to a playoff season from Munster Rugby. The wait for silverware moves on. Eleven years since the last triumph and you would be a brave person to back Munster Rugby delivering next season or beyond. The current squad are further behind in their quest for silverware.

Season Highs

Munster Rugby’s young prospects provided evidence of their potential and worth with some noteworthy performances. I think back to the away trip to Scarlets; an early season game where management rested marquee starters. The side on the day produced a superb display to secure a bonus point win.

European Cup fixtures was where this side excelled this season. The away trip to Wasps. The squad and management on duty threw the shackles off and produced a stirring eighty minutes of rugby. Scott Buckley, Daniel Okeke, Patrick Campbell and others stepped up and delivered.

We had the Wasps and Castres pool games. Castres games were a dogfight but the side got the job done. Wasps came to Thomond Park and were put to the sword early.

The Exeter Chiefs away game was touch and go but the home tie in Thomond Park saw genuine attacking play which suggested the side had turned the corner. Last eight berth secured.

Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium. Munster Rugby in charge for long periods of the game but lack of composure on both sides of the ball opened the door for Toulouse to get back in the contest. Penalty kicks was a lottery. Munster Rugby bowed out.

The connection between team and fans restored, lessons would be learned heading into the URC or so we thought. Playoff hopes in the URC were high.

Season Lows

The announcement that Johann van Graan was joining Bath Rugby was the pivotal point of the season. December 2021 was an awful time to announce this. Bath Rugby could wait no longer. Munster Rugby hierarchy blindsided.

How can an organization row in the same direction when your head coach and then attacking point decide to call time? The project was finished here unfortunately despite what people say. An organization in complete disharmony come the end of this campaign ensued.

Squad doubts on the project would have naturally surfaced. Would it have been best served to release both van Graan and Larkham early from their contracts? Hindsight is a beautiful thing but it was a PR disaster for Munster Rugby hierarchy.

Toulouse fixture was seen as a heroic performance but what we have seen from this side post that fixture has been truly tragic. Yes, there have been injuries to contend with but Leinster Rugby’s performance in the final round of the URC regular season was a massive wakeup call.

Leinster Rugby resting many of their first team players bullied Munster Rugby in all aspects of play at the Aviva Stadium. There was creative freedom from Leinster Rugby while Munster Rugby rattled early went to prototype.

Munster Rugby moved from third to sixth. Revenue stream lost with no home playoff stand. It is a result which will haunt this ball club next season when Munster Rugby are picked in a pool of death. The ambition to deep into European Cup looks forlorn right now.

The Ulster Rugby performance last Friday was unfortunately a continuation of the Leinster Rugby performance. Munster Rugby may have scored three tries but Ulster Rugby cohesion with ball in hand was too much. Munster Rugby players stepping out of the line defensively and getting punished for it.

Playoff rugby requires additional quality and performance than in a regular season fixture and unfortunately this ball club does not have that in their locker to go up the gears with ball in hand to get the job done. The evidence is there for all to see.

Training and Preparation

The postgame RTE comments of Leinster vs. Glasgow about Munster Rugby were not flattering at all; criticism of preparation and training sessions for years were flagged which would raise questions on what the Munster Rugby hierarchy were doing. Clear issues in terms of training preparation. No one within the Munster Rugby board raised concerns.

Caroline Currid was introduced to provide a mental edge to the ball club. Currid is a standout in her profession but this organization has massive underlying cultural issues which are not going to be addressed overnight. It is a complete cultural transformation required to reset and improve as a collective.

If you train and prepare well, matchday performances should be on point (most of the time). The running line and skill set issues from Munster Rugby at the key stages of this season exposed potential training session issues which were not addressed.

The lack of performance was also seen at various points during the URC season. Ospreys gave Munster Rugby a lesson in discipline and execution around ruck time during the international series window. Munster Rugby’s trip to Connacht Rugby was a horrendous attacking display.

Zero ambition and skill set to create any attacking platform. Leinster Rugby easily disposed of Munster Rugby at Thomond Park and the Aviva Stadium was a lesson in a squad who were on top of their game.

Training sessions need to be refined and increased in intensity so that the players are put under pressure during week day sessions to be at their best during weekend fixtures. Squad competition needs to be upped, players on form getting the nod for matchday squads. Competition breeds quality and better performances for the team.

The Graham Rowntree era

Graham Rowntree takes over as Munster Rugby head coach. He will be joined by Mike Prendergast, Denis Leamy and Andy Kyriacou who will look to set the tone and up the standards quite significantly early.

There is plenty to fix particularly in the front five given the departures of stalwarts such as John Ryan. Jason Jenkins has left for Leinster Rugby. Roman Salanoa and Kenyon Knox prospects have failed to impress so this is an interesting offseason for both young men.

It is not that there is not talent for this new coaching ticket to work with but the training sessions and drills must be significantly improved upon. The young prospects who show ambition, drive and skill need to be given experience in the big games.

The management team need to quickly assess the current squad has players who are not up to the level required. Professional sport is a ruthless business and this judgement should come sooner rather than later. I would expect loan deals for certain players with a view to permanent moves away from the club. Established players may need to give additional game minutes to younger prospects.

Scouting networks need to be refined and enhanced to look at a bigger player pool domestically and abroad to fill key positions particularly the front row where the depth chart looks light in experience.

Munster Rugby need outside support and guidance

I have called for a root and branch review of the provincial operating model for a number of years now. Munster Rugby’s brand. What is it exactly? The identify of Munster Rugby needs a reboot.

The Munster Rugby hierarchy need to be transparent with the fan base on the following questions:

  • How are they going to support a fledging rookie head coach at the ball club?
  • Who will advise Rowntree when results do not go according to plan?
  • What is the ethos and identify of this organization?
  • Who is calling the shots when it comes to player recruitment both arrivals and departures?

Munster Rugby organization in recent years have been quite keen to pump revenues into eSports. Would it be better to look to within and get your own house in order before committing to such ventures? I am not seeing the tangible economic benefit of this venture for Munster Rugby in terms of revenue streams.

It is an organization (for me) that is caught between different schools of thought. Are we a side which will look to pack platform as a foundation or will the side look to completely evolve into a dynamic attacking outfit?

The organization will continue to operate business as usual into next season. IRFU should be stepping into see if there are improvements to be made in all aspects of this organization; otherwise the support base will fall off unfortunately given the brand and entertainment delivered on the pitch.

Player Management

The lengthy injury list to squad player throughout the season is a hallmark trend for this ball club in recent years.

Leinster Rugby have used 60+ players this term to offset work load during a season. Munster Rugby continue to use the same core of squad players and cue key player injuries just at the wrong end of the season.

Strength and conditioning, game management of players synchronization should be reviewed and improved upon. Everything needs to be assessed and improved upon even down to nutritional needs of the squad.

Conclusion

Munster Rugby were sixth seeds in this URC playoff campaign. Munster Rugby finished third out of the four Irish provinces. The Champions Cup berth only secured last weekend when Leinster Rugby thumped Glasgow Warriors.

Next season could be a tough transitional year for Munster Rugby as Rowntree looks to implement some key changes to the playing style along with Prendergast and Leamy.

This may take time but the new head coach must drive the identify of this team from day one of preseason. Rowntree needs to provide that spark and leadership and others hopefully will follow here. Let’s see how things play out during preseason.

This could get worse before it gets better. I hope Rowntree hits the ground running and makes an impact early in preseason, otherwise the ball club will be even further behind the elite sides in URC and European competition. A season with some highs but mostly devastating lows.

Give players such as Casey, Kendellen, Hodnett, Crowley and Healy more time. Let’s start to build a formidable team once more from the bottom up. Everyone in this organization needs to reflect and improve as an unit, otherwise the same issues of this season will surface even more.