CHANGE happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change. For Munster, the pain of staying the same was a series of defeats to the very top tier of European rugby in knockout rugby – Racing 92, Saracens and Leinster – over three seasons.
Munster were good, one of the top sides in Europe, but there are levels to this game and for the last three seasons we found that level to be below the level required to beat the sides that have contested the last four European Champions Cup finals.
There’s no shame in that. There are dozens of teams around the continent that would be dancing in the streets at a similar return over three seasons, but that’s not where Munster aspire to be. Saracens in the Aviva. Racing in Bordeaux. Leinster in the RDS. Saracens in Coventry. Leinster in the RDS.
Every one of them a painful illustration of where Munster were falling short. This Champions Cup season was a condensed text of what we had learned over those past three seasons and a third-place finish behind Racing and Saracens was a fair reflection of the gap to be bridged. The gap wasn’t massive – and had narrowed from three seasons back – but it existed nonetheless.
So you change, but with change comes pain too. I think it’s fair to say that Munster have certainly looked to change aspects of their collective style of play this season and that it’s accelerated quite quickly from midway through the pre-season.
The clearest example of this acceleration I’ve yet seen was last Friday against the Southern Kings. I was covering the game with my broadcast buddy Dan Mooney on Limerick’s Live 95 and I was massively enthused by what I saw in the stadium.
There was width, invention, a collective willingness to offload and savage, relentless pace on the play. Yet as I was walking back to my hotel room and scrolling through my social media mentions I saw a lot of people that were disappointed with the passing errors that Munster had made during the contest combined with a few turnovers and other errors.
You’d almost be forgiven for thinking that Munster had just about scraped a 32-28 win. This is the pain of change. You can’t expect Munster to expand their attack to the level that the coaches hope will win trophies without enduring shakedown games like this after a long layoff.
If we take Munster’s performance against the Southern Kings last season as an example – when we presume they were as bad as everything thinks they are now – then you can get a glimpse of how Munster are looking to evolve. This game against the Kings gives us a chance to compare like for like, in a lot of ways.
On the 15th of February 2019, Munster beat the Southern Kings 43-0 after a three-week layoff. With 56% possession, Munster carried the ball 140 times and passed the ball 156 times with 16 turnovers conceded. Munster scored 7 tries, engineered 10 line breaks and beat 21 defenders.
On the 14th of February 2019, Munster beat the Southern Kings 68-3 after a four-week layoff. With 54% possession, Munster carried the ball 138 times and passed the ball 173 times with 18 turnovers conceded. Munster scored 10 tries, engineered 21 line breaks and beat 38 defenders.
What does this tell us? That this season against the same weak Cat-3 opposition with the same layoff, Munster passed the ball more, carried the ball marginally fewer times, made more line breaks and beat more defenders with a marginal difference in turnovers with less possession overall.
When you pass more – and build yourself to make and receive more passes – there will be more mistakes, there’ll be more scope for poor passes and there’ll be more alignment errors until the style permeates down through the squad. When you get time, games like this past week and, most importantly of all, cohesion week to week with selection and training, you’ll get to where you want to be sooner rather than later.