Arid Environment

Time for Munster’s next generation to take the wheel

THE contrast between the teams in Belfast last Friday night was plain for all to see. One side haunted by the reality of defeat, the other liberated by the exhilation of victory. A week on from their respective Heineken Champions Cup Round of 16 experiences, Ulster and Munster occupied a different space.

It was far more than a routine United Rugby Championship clash. It was all about putting down a statement as to where the respective squads sat at a crucial time in the season.

Munster passed the test with flying colors while, not for the first time, Ulster were found wanting when it mattered most. With two testing game against Edinburgh and the Cell C Sharks to come, their task in securing a home quarter final has become a lot more challenging on the back of the Munster defeat.

The win only served to reinforce my belief that Munster have sufficient emerging talent within their squad to progress further next season if new head coach Graham Rowntree succeeds in building a competent, hungry and knowledgeable coaching team around him.

While that remains crucial, it is equally important that the environment he and his new management team create not only recognise what, in the past, made Munster greater than the sum of their parts but also empowers the emerging players take ownership of their future.

The senior group, led magnificently over the last decade by Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and the silent but massively respected Keith Earls who, more than anyone, gets what Munster is all about, should now pass the baton to the younger cohort and themselves be carried, in the twilight of their glittering careers, by the enthusiasm of youth.

This could be marked by a change of captaincy at the beginning of next season. O’Mahony has proved a brilliant leader of this squad for some time but, like Paul O’Connell before him, there comes a time to clear the decks and pave the way for a new beginning. Jack O’Donoghue could take over with Alex Kendellen, groomed over the next two seasons, to follow the Waterford man.

The fact that Rowntree is doing everything in his power to add a hardcore Munster man in Denis Leamy to his management ticket is encouraging. Leamy has served his coaching apprenticeship and is ready for the next stage which involves taking over as defense coach from JP Ferreira, who is joining Johann van Graan in Bath.

Being part of the highly successful Leinster set up in recent times has exposed Leamy to the seamless working relationship and chemistry between Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster, along with the highly successful integration process employed by them in drip-feeding talented young players to the demands of playing in domestic and European competition. Leamy, currently in South Africa with Leinster, would be a great addition.

The role Mike Prendergast has played as attack coach with Racing 92 along with his intimate knowledge of club scene within the province from his time coaching Young Munster will also prove invaluable. He’s not only earned his stripes as an attack coach but has done so over the last few years in a racing environment populated by a mix of extremely talented but independently-minded individuals such as Finn Russell, Virimi Vakatawa, Kurtley Beale, Teddy Thomas, Simon Zebo, Gael Fickou and Juan Imhoff. There’s a lot of egos to deal with there but Priendergast has got on with his job, continually getting the best out of those players.

The challenge for him, if he does come home to Limerick, is to piece together an equally effective attacking template without the same array of highly talented individuals at his disposal in Paris. There’s only one way to find out.

The Munster board were not found wanting in the recent past when it came to sourcing experienced, high profile coaches in Rowntree and Stephen Larkham and shouldn’t hesitate now in luring both Leamy and Prendergast home. For whatever reason, Larkham failed to make the impact expected with Munster lacking any discernible attacking style.

It’s so crucial with any management team to have a group that gel together and respect not only their individual roles but that of the combined coaching set up. There has to be a recognition that, sometimes, depending on the specific demands of the team at a point in time, it’s important to concede more time in preparation to the areas that need to be fixed. Rowntree strikes me as the type of individual capable of driving that collective effort and understanding.

DROP CAP

Fresh life appears to have been injected into the Munster cause since confirmation of Rowntree’s elevation to the hot seat from July 1st. The swagger of old has been rekindled and, all of a sudden, the Champions Cup quarter-final tie against Toulouse feels a bit more negotiable. Don’t get me wrong. That still amounts to a major obstacle, more so having lost the capacity to stage the game at Thomond Park, but Munster heads appear in a good place at present.

It’s taken a bit of time to capture the imagination but, at long last, the newly constructed URC is beginning to deliver. Central to this is the emergence of the South African challenge with three of the quarter final places occupied by one of the new arrivals.

The pandemic wreaked havoc on this fledgling tournament from the outset but with a number of postponed games having been successfully rescheduled, we finally have a league table with a clear picture with all the top eight teams having played 16 games.

Incredibly, after such a fractured campaign with so many contests lost to Covid, only four points separate the Vodacom Bulls in eighth place from fellow South African’s DHL Stormers in second in what has become a ravenous pursuit of a quarter final slot.

The fact that a third South African side, the Sharks, sit fourth in the table shows just how competitive the new arrivals have become now that they’ve settled into the tournament and finally been afforded the opportunity to play home games against Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Italian opposition.

Having endured a miserable time at the outset of the competition, away from home for long periods of time, having to survive in very restrictive bubbles, the South Africans have begun to show what they can bring to the table. With the top four in the final league standings securing a home quarter-final, with a potential semi-final to follow, nobody would fancy having to return to South Africa for the knockout phase.

Confirmation last week that the final itself will be hosted by the highest-ranking team from the league campaign will provide even more incentive for Leinster when their depleted squad meets second-placed Stormers in Cape Town on Saturday.

Leinster’s young charges did remarkably well in a cracking contest against the Sharks in a rain-sodden Kings Park in Durban last Saturday before losing out 28-23. Of even more importance for the long-term growth of the league was that 20,000 fans turned up for the game.

To grow the competition further and to make sure even more turn up the next time the Irish are in town, it’s important that we travel with as close to full squads as possible. That really hasn’t happened to date. For the league to prosper further, we need to see the top Springboks in action when they travel north as much as the South African public want to see the likes of Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, Conor Murray and Tadhg Beirne when our teams head south.

That said, what an experience it proved for the latest crop of emerging Leinster talent when taking on a real Springbok superpower on home turf last Saturday. Next weekend’s contest in Cape Town is likely to prove even more demanding.

Munster return to Musgrave Park Friday and must look for a maximum return of five points against a struggling Cardiff side given they face Leinster at the Aviva Stadium in their last league outing. The win in Belfast was crucial in propelling Munster up an claustrophobic league table. With just two rounds of action to come, the beleaguered tournament organisers are entitled to reflect on a job well done in very difficult circumstances.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button