Our dissection of the Irish provincial sides’ respective seasons continue with Munster coming under this week’s spotlight.
After two years and three semi-finals, the Rob Penney era came to a disappointingly sombre conclusion this season. True to form, Munster proved to be, on the whole, better than the sum of their parts but another heroic defeat on the road in Europe and a frustrating finale to their Pro 12 campaign in Scotstoun against Glasgow saw the ‘Men In Red’ fall short in their quest for glory yet again.
For a province with an eternal thirst for success, another trophyless season does not sit well with the supporters. The retirement of Ronan O’Gara saw a need for the Southerners to alter their game plan and as the lateral passing increased from game to game without much effectiveness, the patience in the stands dwindled.
The clash of the traditional Munster forward orientated game and Penney’s will to implement attractive backline play never sat right with the players, who often fell between two stools on the field.
After finishing 6th in the Pro 12 in his first campaign, Penney realised the need to rectify the domestic form and Munster were placed atop the table for much of the season. The fact that the squad was minimally affected by internationals call ups helped them steal a march on the surrounding sides. A poor run-in however, ultimately saw Munster slump down to third in the table which set them up for a tricky trip to Glasgow, one which they failed to negotiate successfully.
Their European campaign also concluded with an away semi-final, falling gallantly to eventual champions Toulon in Marseille. There could be few complaints about the defeat but the failure to beat a limited Edinburgh in Round 1 of the pool stage proved to cost Munster dear. It was a loss they would lament as a win in that fixture would have seen them play through the knockout stages on Irish soil.
Reasons To Be Cheerful
One thing Munster will never lose is their fighting spirit and ability to upset the odds. Europe has always been the Holy Grail for the province and while they have struggled to command the same level of fear they did in the middle of last decade, nobody will ever take them for granted, regardless of what fifteen don the jersey.
Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan are the last on-field links to those successful Munster teams of 2006 and 2008, but with Anthony Foley now in the head coaching role, the next batch of Munster forwards have plenty of inspiration at close quarters.
Peter O’Mahony is already forging a stellar reputation, while Tommy O’Donnell, Dave Foley, James Cronin and Sean Dougall are emerging as players who can form the spine of a solid pack for years to come. The addition of Robin Copeland is also an astute signing as the Wexford native adds ballast in the ball-carrying stakes beside CJ Stander.
JJ Hanrahan, while still inconsistent, has shown he has the potential to be a quality out half. His goal kicking is solid while he is a dangerous runner with ball in hand. The young Kerry man seems to be the man Foley should hang his hat on in the number 10 role. He may make mistakes, but at his age it’s all about learning by doing.
There will never be another ROG, but there are very few ROG type players at the moment. Teams are looking for a more all-round threat from their pivots and Hanrahan looks well placed to be a hit at the highest level.
Reasons to be Fearful
When Munster won their Heineken Cups in 2006 and 2008 they had solid centre partnerships that attacked with menace and defended with aggression. Trevor Halstead was the key man in 2006 and he was ably supported by the likes of John Kelly and Barry Murphy, while Lifeimi Mafi and Rua Tipoki were a deadly duo in 2008.
Last season Munster were very unsettled in midfield, with their centre pairing rotated almost on a weekly basis. It is an area of concern for Munster and while James Downey and Casey Laulala have gone to pastures new, their replacements are coming from humble backgrounds.
Andrew Smith is an Australian journeyman who has forged his career mainly as a replacement for the Brumbies, while Tyler Bleyendaal comes with slightly more pedigree, having captained the New Zealand U20’s at the 2010 Junior World Cup. The 24-year-old has seen his career stall in the meantime however and at the moment is classified as unfulfilled potential. These are the two that will be tasked with bringing more composure to the Munster midfield.
High Point of the Season
The wonderful 47-23 demolition of the one-time kingpins of Europe Toulouse at Thomond Park was a throwback to the glory days. Munster ruled the roost in a manner not seen since their last European success in 2008. They dominated every facet of the game and scored seemingly at will in the second half as Toulouse were powerless to prevent the red tide flowing over their try line.
Munster crossed six times in all, in what was one of their most emphatic victories in some time. It boosted the fans who would have been unconvinced in the lead up to that game and raised morale across the province.
Low Point of the Season
The final game of the year summed up a lot of the negativity that surrounded the side during Rob Penney’s reign. Munster traveled to Glasgow in the RaboDirect Pro12 semi-final and inexplicably lost the game. Having been the better team Munster contrived to throw it away and then in the closing minutes the produced a series of plays which all but encapsulated the non-threatening sideways movement that had blighted their campaign.
Having exited the Heineken Cup a couple weeks previously, the RaboDirect Pro12 offered Munster their first shot at silverware since they won this competition in 2010-11. The manner in which they lost to a compact and well organised, yet inferior team sets this apart as the biggest disappointment of the season.
Despite being quite unpleasing on the eye Munster muddled their way the domestic campaign quite effectively early doors. They made a huge improvement on their previous seasons 6th place finish, but ultimately slipping to third was an unsatisfactory conclusion to the regular season.
The European defeat can be tolerated given how strong Toulon have proved to be, but the careless defeat against Edinburgh which essentially sent Munster to the South of France cannot. Scotland was an unhappy hunting ground for Munster this year, In what proved to be an unhappy campaign.
Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena.