Four weeks ago I wrote how Munster supporters needed to show some patience while the new men at the helm find their feet. Things were looking bleak – two wins from seven from the opening block of URC games and what looked like an uphill battle to qualify for next season’s Champions Cup. I was sure things would come good eventually but thought it would take a while.
A month on and things look different. Three wins out of four in a crucial run of fixtures, with the only loss being a five-point defeat to a Toulouse side who are sure to be there or thereabouts at the business end of their domestic and European campaigns. In fact, that was a game they could and probably should have won.
Sport is funny and a team’s fortunes can change quickly. Just look at Argentina’s journey to lifting the World Cup on Sunday. Heavily fancied ahead of the tournament, they were embarrassed by a shock defeat to Saudi Arabia in their opening game. Back to back losses to Cardiff and Dragons to kick off Munster’s season in September had plenty of people writing them off in similar fashion.
While I don’t see Munster replicating Argentina’s fortunes and going on an unexpected run to lift the Champions Cup in May, the side is beginning to look unrecognisable from that which stuttered its way through the opening two months of the season. Sunday’s win in Northampton was not the prettiest game of rugby. It was, however, a gutsy, confrontational and hard-edged display that showed us this squad is on an upward curve.
The most positive element of the improvements is that they aren’t confined to one area of the game. They are visible across the board. That much was clear in Northampton. Despite the poor conditions, Munster moved the ball wide with relative ease, throwing speculative passes a more conservative attack coach would discourage.
Having two out-halves on the pitch opened up both sides of the ruck for Munster’s attack and the identification of space in phase play – particularly in the first half – was impressive. Whether this will be a regular approach in selection remains to be seen, but it was an interesting and effective experiment if nothing else.
Mike Haley is thriving in the new system and the frequency with which he comes into the line as an option adds another dimension to Munster’s offence that wasn’t there in recent years. Haley has been one of the standout performers this season. He spoke last week about how Mike Prendergast is encouraging him to get involved more and take defenders on, something clear to anyone watching him lately.
Interestingly, he spoke about having to ‘un-learn’ a certain way of playing this season. While that could be perceived as a thinly veiled dig at his old boss, I don’t think it was. It’s the reality of switching from a conservative style of attack to a more ambitious one.
Andy Farrell and Mike Catt faced the same issue when they took over the Irish team. You could see the reluctance to take risks in the way the players were playing. As we have come to see in the last 18 months, they obviously had a licence to try things and move the ball about but were choosing not to.
To be a bit dramatic, it’s like being de-programmed from a cult. Your livelihood is dependent on you buying fully into the plan your boss is trying to implement. Refuse to do it and you won’t be selected. Don’t get selected and you’ll be looking for a contract elsewhere. It is, in my opinion, one of the more difficult things for supporters to appreciate. People often think being given the green light to throw offloads is what every player wants. The truth is you have to work to make this your default setting, which can take a long time.
Defensively, Sunday’s performance was immense. Northampton were one-dimensional in what they offered in attack but not only did Munster match them in the collision zone, they dominated them physically throughout. This was particularly evident in the final 30 minutes when wave after wave of Northampton attack was stopped in its tracks and put back on its arse.
‘Exerting your physicality on the opposition’ is one of those philosophies every coach pretends to espouse. Many pay lip service to it without coaching their players in a way that sees it manifest on the pitch. Shaun Edwards is a clear proponent of it and you can see this expressed in every team he coaches.
I have had enough conversations with current players in recent weeks to know that like Edwards, Denis Leamy sets exceptionally high standards and expects his players to put their bodies on the line to impose themselves on their opponents. His fingerprints were all over Sunday’s second half performance.
Also, an element of unpredictability has come into play around selection which will keep players on their toes in a way we haven’t seen for a number of years. Starting Jack Crowley at 12 ahead of Rory Scannell; leaving Dave Kilcoyne out of the squad for Toulouse despite being fit to play; starting John Hodnett at openside in the same game and keeping Jack O’Donoghue on the bench – these are all things we wouldn’t have seen before this season.
Every coach claims to want competition but most will revert to the tried-and-tested when it comes down to the big occasion. That no longer appears to be the case. Meaningful competition is invaluable. The senior players with years of credit in the bank realise they can’t assume they will be selected every week. Others see the season Jack Crowley is having and realise getting a hold of a starting jersey isn’t a million miles away.
There’s plenty of work to do. While the maul has been an effective tool in attack, it hasn’t been bulletproof in defence. Northampton didn’t threaten much in this area but both of Toulouse’s tries came from mauls the previous week. Seeing how often the Leinster pack ran mauls over the line in their last two outings, Munster will have to tighten the ship before next Monday.
The scrum and lineout have both been less consistent than they need to be. John Ryan has had some excellent outings since his return but as we know, he won’t be hanging around too much longer. Keynan Knox and Roman Salanoa still have work to do to convince Rowntree they are the men and a lot of responsibility is likely to fall back on Stephen Archer’s shoulders when he makes his return from ankle surgery.
The starkest issue Sunday was the level of indiscipline. Munster conceded a staggering 18 penalties, receiving three yellow cards. Had referee Pierre-Baptiste Nuchy been in less forgiving mood, there could have been at least two more. Munster have given away 104 penalties in the URC, one of the worst records in the league.
You don’t win trophies giving away 18 penalties. You can get away with it against a Northampton but try the same against Leinster and you can forget about taking anything from the game.
The message remains the same – patience is required. But we might not have to be as patient as I previously thought before things really start to fire.