IT’S ‘El Clasico’ Irish style. The meeting of Leinster and Munster in the PRO12 before more than 40,000 supporters at the Aviva Stadium this Saturday marks the second leg of four in Munster’s demanding playing schedule at present.
Munster have failed their two big away tests to date this season, narrowly in the case of Ulster in Ravenhill and then in spectacular fashion against the Ospreys in Wales last weekend.
An evolving Munster appeared to be making pretty smooth progress under new head coach Rob Penney until last weekend’s wake-up call in Swansea when the Welsh region inflicted a convincing 15-point defeat on the Irish province.
The result provided plenty of food for thought for the Munster players and management team ahead of this weekend’s trip to Dublin to face arch rivals Leinster. And then there is the prospect of a trip to France to take on big-spending Racing Metro in the crucial opening fixture in this season’s Heineken Cup. Throw in the home clash with Edinburgh in Round 2 of the Heineken Cup eight days later and you can see these are testing times.
Season defining? Perhaps not, but we will have a good idea of how Munster’s season may develop over the remainder of the campaign.
So can Penney bring the glory days - and some silverware - back to Thomond Park over the next eight months? Here are some of the factors which will determine how successful the first season of the Kiwi’s tenure ultimately proves.
HONEYMOON PERIOD OVER
THE arrival of new head coach Rob Penney and backs coach Simon Mannix has brought a new freshness and feel-good factor to the training paddock over recent months. Both men have their own ideas at how best to maximise the talent at their disposal. These significant changes in the coaching team also provided squad members who had not been first choice under the previous coaching regime with renewed hope that they could force their way into the side under Penney’s watch.
In the absence of the Irish internationals over the opening weeks of the season, many young players impressed and to be fair kept their starting jersey for following fixtures. The likes of Luke O’Dea, unfortunately now on the injured list, Ian Keatley, Dave O’Callaghan and Sean Dougall, have impressed. But the question facing Penney is whether to continue to give youth its fling in the key upcoming PRO12 and Heineken Cup fixtures.
The odds would probably still be on the ‘old guard’ returning for these key fixtures, but time will tell.
At least under the IRFUs player management process, the young squad members are sure to play again towards the end of October and while the Irish stars are involved in the autumn internationals.
perhaps the biggest selection dilemma facing coach Penney for the crunch RaboDirect PRO12 and Heineken Cup fixtures which lie ahead is choice of midfield combination.
Munster is fortunate to have so much midfield talent at its disposal. While the likes of Danny Barnes has done well in the centre in the past, Penney looks set to have to decide between which two from the trio of Keith Earls, James Downey and Casey Laulala form his first choice centre partnership.
Downey looks a good bet to start the key fixtures at 12. He is defensively solid, generally gets over the gainline when he carries and has improved the off-loading out-of-the-tackle element to his game.
So it appears that the biggest call facing Penney is to decide on his partner at 13. Keith Earls has been quick to state his preference for an outside centre role and has done extremely well in that position this season. But so too has Laulala. Penney has worked with the former Cardiff Blues centre in the past in New Zealand. It’s a tough call, but Earls’ versatility may ultimately see him deployed in another position, perhaps at 15, with Doug Howlett and Simon Zebo playing on the wings.
It will also be fascinating to see the make-up of Penney’s preferred option for the second-rows and back-row.
Towards the end of Tony McGahan’s tenure, Donncha O’Callaghan was losing out to Donnacha Ryan in terms of first choice partner for Paul O’Connell.
Neither O’Connell nor Ryan have featured for Munster to date this season due to injury. O’Callaghan has played impressively through the opening weeks of the campaign. When he has a full deck to play from, will Penney be tempted to play O’Connell and O’Callaghan in the second row and deploy Donnacha Ryan in a back-row position. Until O’Connell and Ryan get some decent game time under their belts, it is impossible to know.
SET PIECE IMPROVEMENT
THE set-piece remains a key area of the modern game in the Northern Hemisphere and especially during the winter months when the number of scrums and line-outs increases significantly due to the all-too-often wet and windy playing conditions.
Munster’s set-piece will need to be firing on all cylinders for the big tests which lie ahead.
Munster’s pack struggled to cope with Ospreys intensity last weekend. The Ospreys forwards strength gives an indication of what Munster’s front eight can expect in their upcoming fixtures with Leinster this weekend and again in the opening Heineken Cup clashes with Racing Metro and Edinburgh.
NEW STYLE OF PLAY
MUNSTER supporters have been enthused by the province’s new, more expansive style of play in the early months of Penney’s tenure.
The Kiwi is committed to playing a more dynamic kind of game. Similar to New Zealand, there has been a major emphasis on forwards popping up on the wing to offer support to any back making a break up the wing. There is also a major emphasis on off-loading out of the tackle and continuity.
Prior to Penney’s arrival, Munster skills coach Ian Costello and forwards coach, Anthony Foley held a series of coaching skills development sessions with the players as part of pre-season work.
The emphasis was on enhancing handling skills and backs and forwards linking up and interchanging. Numbers on players backs are likely to indicate little as the season progresses and players pop up in different areas of the pitch. But the new style of play remains a work in progress and will take time to perfect.
The problem is that Munster will be desperate to achieve positive results against Leinster and in the upcoming Heineken Cup matches. Performance is important, but professional rugby remains a results driven business.
The paying punters were enthused by Munster’s early season displays, but last weekend’s heavy defeat to the Ospreys has raised some doubts in their minds.
CHANGE OF CAPTAIN
IT still remains unclear as to whether Paul O’Connell’s protracted injury problems were a factor in him relinquishing the captaincy.
However, his experienced successor Doug Howlett has acquitted himself well in the role of skipper over the opening month and a bit of the new season.
The fact Howlett is available to skipper the side right through the autumn international and Six Nations period is a major plus for a side, which will be featuring several inexperienced players during that period.
O’Connell was absent at these stages of the season owing to his Irish international commitments. Howlett’s presence through the entire season provides a continuity which should enhance the team.