IT’S amazing to think of the positive impact one single victory can have on a rugby team’s season.
Prior to Anthony Foley side’s visit to the Aviva Stadium to face Leinster in the Guinness PRO12 on Saturday, October 4 there was significant concern over Munster’s prospects for the season ahead.
Munster had made a stuttering start to the season, losing two of their opening four PRO12 fixtures, both at home, to Edinburgh and Ospreys.
Munster had beaten Leinster in Dublin since their 2008 PRO12 win at the RDS.
The last time Munster had won a game at Lansdowne Road was the famous 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final success. There had been five defeats for the southern province since.
But the outlook for Munster’s season changed significantly when, inspired by a terrific first half performance, Foley’s charged ended Leinster’s 13-game winning run at Lansdowne Road. The visitors changed 34-23.
Significantly too - earlier that same day - the Munster A side recorded an impressive 18-8 win over Leinster at Donnybrook. The victory banished memories of Leinster A’s runaway win over their Munster counterparts in the knock-out stages of the British and Irish Cup last season. Munster’s season was up and running.
The senior side’s win over Leinster sparked a run of five successive victories, including crucial wins over Sale and Saracens in the inaugural European Champions Cup.
After a stuttering start, Munster sit in a comfortable fourth place position in the Guinness PRO12 table - certainly not a time for resting on laurels- but an encouraging positions nonetheless.
In European, Munster top their Champions Cup pool, with key back-to-back fixtures with French Top 14 high-flyers Clermont Auvergne to come next month.
DAWN OF A NEW ERA
IT was always going to take time for Munster’s new coaching ticket to bed in. Last summer saw Anthony Foley succeed Rob Penney as Munster head coach. It is the first season in six that the head coaching role is filled by a native.
Foley’s tenure got off to a rocky start when a sensitive player review document was accidentally distributed to all squad members. Some of the comments on squad members contained in the e-mail sent at the end of August were said to be ‘highly critical.’
Foley insisted the issue had quickly dealt with and the players had moved on, but the proof of that could only come with on-field performances. An early home defeat to Edinburgh didn’t augur well, but things picked up slowly.
Former Munster players Brian Walsh and Jerry Flannery also joined the province’s coaching team last summer.
The duo joined Foley, Ian Costello, Mick O’Driscoll and Niall O’Donovan on the province’s coaching team.
Former Munster centre Walsh has taken on responsibility for attack and backs, while Skills Coach Costello was promoted to Assistant Coach, with responsibility for defence and kicking.
Mick O’Driscoll is playing a key role as a Technical Advisor with Jerry Flannery completing the coaching line-up as Scrum Coach.
It was always going to take time for the new coaching ticket to stamp their mark on the squad, but they are making progress.
Foley has adapted well. widely regarded as being a clever coach who specialises in man-management and delivering a clear message to squad members.
STYLE OF PLAY
THE Rob Penney era saw Munster reach two Heineken Cup semi-finals as well as a PRO12 semi-final. Close but no cigar.
Critics of the Penney era pointed to the team’s tendency to move the ball laterally, from side to side, east to west rather than north to south, lacking penetration. Under Kiwi Penney the province tried to adopt a Cantabrian-style wide-wide game which looked overly ambitious and ill-suited to the players at his disposal.
Foley’s elevation to head coach has seen a change in style of play with more emphasis on Munster’s traditional style. This season the mantra has been about playing in the right areas of the pitch, of making the right decisions and making chances count.
Munster have a lot of work-ons for sure, but there are encouraging signs.
CENTRES OF ATTENTION
THE summer departures of both James Downey and Casey Laulala left Munster searching for a new centre partnership this season.
Fans wondered who would replace the duo. Denis Hurley has proved something of a bolter, but the former St Munchin’s College star has formed an impressive partnership with Australian import Andrew Smith.
For now, at least, the question of who will fill the 12 and 13 jerseys has been put to bed.
CJ STANDS UP AND DELIVERS
BACK-row forward CJ Stander has been Munster’s most consistent performer through the opening months of the season.
The South African has been a renowned ball carrier since his arrival, but other aspects of his game, including defence, has improved significantly over the past six months. Stander has established himself as a first choice starter in the back-row no mean achievement given the strength in depth the province boasts in that sector.
MANAGING HOOKER CRISIS
MUNSTER have coped remarkably well with the long term absence of both Mike Sherry and Damien Varley this season.
Duncan Casey and Kevin O’Byrne have flourished in the limelight, answering all the questions asked of them to date.