Given December 1 as a starting point, what are your expectations for the coming year, and where are Munster as things stand with regard to those ambitions?
If asked after the Pro14 semi-final against Leinster in early September, I would not have been terribly optimistic about what the year ahead had in store for Munster. The team seemed to have picked up where it left off, and the hope that we would see a reinvigorated side return from their Covid-induced layoff appeared to have been dashed.
Since then, I’m very happy to say my perception has completely changed. Munster have started the new season with a completely different philosophy that is undoubtedly reflective of Stephen Larkham’s influence finally beginning to show. The term ‘team in transition’ gets thrown around a lot in relation to Munster, which is understandable given the turnover of coaching teams in the last decade (there have been five different head coaches in the last nine years, and many more assistants). It’s a meaningless term in my book unless you can actually see evidence of a transition – something to indicate change is afoot, other than a new signing or a new member of staff.
The first eight games of the new season have shown us change in abundance. Players are being encouraged to move the ball, to keep it alive, to try things. Finally – for the first time I can remember – there are a huge number of youngsters getting an opportunity, and they sure as hell seem set on seizing it with both hands.
As such, my expectations (following the pleasure we’ve gotten from watching a newly energised, fresh-blooded team fly out of the traps in the last couple of months), are that Munster will continue to do what they are doing. Changing a style of rugby from highly conservative to highly ambitious takes time and doing it with youngsters takes even longer.
This winning streak won’t last indefinitely. There will be hard nights; probably some bad losses, but it’s crucial that Johann van Graan, the players and indeed the organisation as a whole make it clear that they believe in the direction Munster are heading and commit themselves fully to this very entertaining journey the club appears to be on.
Munster’s CJ Stander is tackled by Scott Baldwin and Glen Young of Harlequins. Picture: INPHO/Gary Carr
What is the key barrier to Munster taking the next step and competing consistently again with Europe’s elite?
Depends how you define ‘competing consistently’. Is it being regular semi-finalists or actually being in a position to win a European Cup? If it’s the former, Munster have the quality in their squad to make it to the last four but have not looked strong enough to go further than that. If it’s the latter, there is still quite a bit of work to do.
The obvious requirement up front is another big, powerful ball carrier or two. RG Synman could very well have been much of the answer to that, but the rugby gods determined that Munster were going to have to wait another season for that experiment to start. The nature of rugby today means that teams without players of the stature of Billy and Mako Vunipola, for example, will always struggle to succeed at the very top level of European rugby.
Munster have traditionally relied on having a mobile pack rather than a huge one and have prioritised work rate over physicality when it comes to selection. That has served them well up to a point – but that point is the semi-final. As someone who was light for his position for most of his career, I love seeing players selected based on their skillset as opposed to their size. Unfortunately, I think Munster will need to prioritise the latter eventually if they want to win another European Cup.
Another lineout caller is also needed. As it stands, Billy Holland is the only out and out lineout caller in the squad as far as I’m concerned. Tadhg Beirne has moved into that role since his arrival, but he’s not a natural. You need a natural running the show to win trophies, in my opinion. This is fine if Billy is selected to start in big games but the last couple of seasons indicate that he probably won’t be in the starting 15. It’s undeniable that the lineout has struggled when Billy hasn’t been on the pitch in big games. As such, there needs to be a concerted effort to work with Tadhg Beirne to ensure he continues to progress to that level, if he’s going to be the man tasked with the responsibility. He needs to call regularly in league games, regardless of whether he’s playing in the backrow or not, and regardless of whether Holland is on the pitch at the same time. Without the opportunity to grow into the role, the problem is not going to go away.
Munster’s Liam O’Connor at training in UL. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane
Would you say Johann van Graan and his coaching team have progressed Munster (and the project) to the point where those ambitions are attainable?
If you take the end of Rassie Erasmus’ reign as the measure, I don’t believe you can say that Munster have progressed in the last three years. At that stage, they had made the final of the Pro14 and the semi-final of Europe the previous season, and while they have repeated the latter twice since, they have been comprehensively beaten in both of those outings. The failure to win a league or even get to another final is a concern and illustrates the fact that currently, Munster are a semi-final team.
There is no shame in that – it takes an extraordinary level of consistency to reach a European semi-final three years in a row (’17, ’18 and ’19). We need to be realistic about what our expectations are. Being a top-four team in multiple competitions means you are one of the best sides in the business. But that has been the story of Munster for much of the last decade. One of the best teams in Europe, without ever really looking they might become the best.
Silverware is a very arbitrary measure of success, and clubs who neglect all the other factors that ensure the longevity of success pay the price. Take Toulon for example – they were an unbeatable side for a number of years because owner Mourad Boudjellal was willing to throw whatever money was required to fill his team up with world class imports. Some key people left, and things fell apart. They have tried to replicate what they had done previously, and it has failed to have any impact. Now, they are a club without a clear identity and supporters that cannot understand why they are no longer the side they once were.
For an organisation with the tradition of Munster, progress has to be multi-faceted. What happens at every level of the club is central to that. In this area, it hasn’t been a great few years either. Since Johann has taken over, three S&C coaches have left. Aled Walters, PJ Wilson and Aidan O’Connell were immensely popular men who left for various reasons to take up new opportunities. These things happen, but it’s never a good reflection for an organisation to lose key members of staff like that in quick succession.
At an academy level, it was pointed out around a year ago that there were more players from west Cork in the Munster Academy than there were from Limerick. This is worrying and indicates there is a problem with the production line that needs to be sorted. Unless these secondary issues are also addressed, it will be hard for holistic progress to be made for the club as a whole.
Shane Daly in action during his Ireland debut against Georgia last month. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Who or what is the most exciting prospect in/about Munster Rugby for 2021?
There are both ‘whos’ and ‘whats’ to get excited about in 2021. I’ll start with the ‘whos’. From the front row to the back three, there have been new additions that have made a seamless transition to first team rugby. Josh Wycherley and Diarmuid Barron in the front row, Thomas Ahern in the second, Gavin Coombes and John Hodnett in the back row. Behind them, Craig Casey, Ben Healy and Shane Daly have all shown maturity far beyond their years and have played an integral part in the success of the early part of the season.
The ‘what’ is probably the thing to get most excited about. Munster are playing a completely different brand of rugby to what we have grown accustomed to seeing over the last few years. An ambitious, adventurous mentality is clearly being cultivated in the minds of this side, and, slowly but surely, we can see everyone grow more and more comfortable in their approach.
People don’t realise it, but if you are naturally a very good offloader, for example, it is very easy to have that skill coached out of your game by a boss that wants to play a conservative style of rugby. This was illustrated in the Irish side during Joe Schmidt’s tenure in charge. Offloading, being an inherently risky thing to do, was discouraged, so players stopped doing it. It takes a while to reignite that natural instinct to keep the ball alive after playing a conservative style for a number of years, and that is what we are seeing in Munster right now.
You can’t just switch it back on and expect to be perfect – players need to have the confidence and the freedom to make mistakes in the knowledge that this is part of the bigger picture. Stephen Larkham has blessed Munster with the freedom to play with ambition, make mistakes and get better as a result. I sincerely hope that the wonderfully expansive rugby we have seen in the last two months doesn’t go out the window when it comes to playing against better quality opposition. That will be the litmus test of how committed Johann really is to Larkham’s project.
JMunster’s Josh Wycherley is congratulated by team-mate Tadhg Beirne after his side win a penalty during their Champions Cup match against Harlequins. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Of the up-and-coming prospects, who would you most like to see given his chance and allowed to develop, even if it means short term frustration?
I’m sure the vast majority of people would say Craig Casey. That’s understandable, given how impressive he has been. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that Craig is going to play a large amount of rugby this year and get plenty of opportunities to grow into the number 9 jersey. Others are not so sure of having that chance when the international boys come back. For that reason, I would focus on some others.
First is Thomas Ahern. We haven’t seen much of Ahern in the first couple of months of the season and he only made his first start in red against Zebre due to a forced change on the day of the game. He is quite the specimen, standing at 6′ 9”, but doesn’t suffer with the lack of mass that affects many particularly tall European second rows. He is incredibly dynamic for such a big man – great in the air, very quick, and a terrific off-loader that you don’t see too often in second rows. He reminds me of a young Richie Gray, who changed people’s perception of what a second row can be expected to do with ball in hand when he broke onto the scene.
Munster haven’t been producing second rows in the last few years at the rate they were previously. In particular, there has been a glaring lack of lineout callers in the ranks. Billy Holland’s contract is up at the end of this year and if he wants to continue, he will be afforded the opportunity to do so. Even at that, whenever Billy finishes up, there will be a huge hole in the lineout department at Munster. This issue has not been helped by the fact that the second rows Munster have signed in recent years, while of a very high calibre (RG Snyman, Tadhg Beirne, Jean Kleyn), have not been natural lineout callers. Munster need to be proactive about fixing this and getting Thomas Ahern as much game time as possible this year is one way of doing it.
Additionally, John Hodnett has been excellent any time he has played. Comparisons have been made with Sean O’Brien and I can understand why – he is aggressive, powerful and brilliant at playing the ball through contact. The backrow will always be the most crowded place for a youngster to try and muscle his way in, but both John and Gavin Coombes have shown enough promise to expect plenty of opportunity this year.
Munster’s John Hodnett is tackled by Olly Robinson of Cardiff Blues at Thomond Park. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
In terms of Munster’s all-important identity, are you happy that the best traditions of the province are being utilised – or is it time to put all that SUAF stuff to bed and find a different mojo?
I am a bit conflicted about this. Munster has an aura. We grow up watching the club in the belief that it is something special, something unique. Those of us lucky enough to make the dream of pulling on the red jersey a reality is fully convinced of the fact that it is a special, unique club to play for. And it is. There was no better illustration of this for me than going to play for Grenoble, a team that was up and down, turned over about half its squad every season, and had very few local guys playing regularly for the senior side. It was a fantastic place to play, a club that had a very proud culture and genuinely could not have done any more to make it feel like a home, but a very different place without a doubt.
Munster is different, but it’s also the same as everywhere else, and becoming increasingly so. The identity and tradition of the club is rooted in it being full of local lads, with a few exceptions. That’s what we had in the glory period of the noughties and is the foundation on which Munster as a rugby institution is built. That’s not really the case anymore, at least certainly not to the same extent. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s inevitable in professional rugby unless you have a production line like that of Leinster, and they don’t really exist anywhere else these days.
When your identity is predicated on the prevalence of local players, however, it’s hard to argue that this development doesn’t dilute it by a certain amount, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking it’s the same as it was back in 2008.
Failing to retain both local players and staff has an impact here. While we will now always rely on signings from elsewhere to ensure the squad is as strong as it can be, certain decisions have been questionable, and guys capable of playing at the highest level moved on unnecessarily, in my opinion. Dave O’Callaghan is a prime example of this. Someone who had proven he was capable of playing at the highest level of European rugby over the years. Bad luck with injury, of course, but his credentials were there for all to see. He was phased out in favour of Arno Botha, a good player but not someone that provided anything Dave couldn’t. Dave moved to the beautiful Pays du Basque and is now an indispensable part of a Biarritz side battling for promotion to the Top 14. I doubt he has any regrets about his decision to leave. If Munster are serious about keeping their identity as strong as it can be in the era of ruthless professionalism, this kind of thing needs to be avoided.