MUNSTER’S season begins on the pitch this Saturday when Rob Penney’s men host Gloucester in a friendly at Thomond Park (5pm). Below are five of the major issues facing the province ahead of the big kick-off.
1. Number 10
Life after Ronan O’Gara begins this Saturday at Thomond Park in the pre-season friendly with Gloucester.
In O’Gara’s absence Munster will look to Ian Keatley, JJ Hanrahan and Jonny Holland to fill the 10 shirt. Keately’s got ‘his nose in front’ in the battle to succeed O’Gara, according to coach, Rob Penney. Given O’Gara’s aura at Munster, it is easy to forget that Keatley has now amassed almost 50 appearances for Munster, making three starts in the Heineken Cup last season. His kicking game may not be at O’Gara’s level, but it’s improving and he offers a greater threat with ball in hand.
Competition for places in the Munster back-row remains as keen as ever. Tommy O’Donnell made huge strides last season, while Peter O’Mahony is set to skipper the side. James O’Coughlan brings valuable experience, while CJ Stander, Sean Dougall, Paddy Butler, Niall Ronan and Barry O’Mahony will be looking to enhance their reputations through the early part of the season.
3. O’Mahony’s Captaincy
After Doug Howlett was forced to retire due to injury at the end of last season, Munster handed the captain’s arm band to Peter O’Mahony, the teak tough, inspirational young back-row.
Succeeding Howlett won’t be an easy task, but O’Mahony is no stranger to the role and previously captained Munster during the 2011/12 season in Paul O’Connell’s absence. O’Connell’s presence in the Munster engine room this season is sure to prove invaluable to the new captain.
4. Squad Depth
Munster’s failure to reach the knock-out stages of the PRO12 was somewhat glossed over by the side’s achievement in reaching the last four of the Heineken Cup.
But the Rabo remains the side’s bread and butter and the province’s performance in the competition provides a valuable insight into the squad’s psyche.
The Munster players – not invoved in Irish squads this season – will be anxious to pick up as many wins as possible when the international players are unavailable.
5. Winning Back Less Committed Fans
Given that 66% of Munster’s revenue comes from gate receipts, it is imperative that the province halts the slide in ticket sales this season.
The best way of doing that is to pick up early wins in the RaboDirect PRO12. Munster have lost the services of marquee names in Ronan O’Gara and Doug Howlett. A good start to the PRO12 will generate greater enthusiasm among the less committed fans and increase the chances of potentially securing a home semi-final.