MUNSTER have some space now. It isn’t space they want but it’s space they have all the same. Not being in the Champions Cup knockout stages frees up at least six weeks of pre and post time compared to the last three seasons.
Sure, it’s a bit like not having to pay for dinner because there was broken glass in your spaghetti but the run to the European Cup semi-final stage over the last few years has really stretched our resources and demanded a certain policy of selection with those two big days in mind.
This season, it’s a different story and that difference could be a big factor in Munster lifting a trophy in June. Yes, June. Our last regular season game takes place on the 30th of May 2020 in Thomond Park against Connacht, five months away. For a bit of context, our semi-final defeat against Leinster last season happened on the 18th of May.
The extended season means that Munster have a lot of road to get back guys like Beirne and Carbery back for the business end of the season and, even more importantly, enough time to finally manage to get some measure of cohesion into the squad.
Time on the pitch – training and in-game – as a group without the compressed “do or die” nature of the Champions Cup pool against Racing and Saracens four or of five consecutive weeks is absolutely vital to getting Munster from where they are now to where we hope they might be in six month’s time.
Since the return of the internationals post World Cup, Munster have had a procession of massive games to prepare for in consecutive weeks with senior players returning in various states of availability to train after the World Cup. It’s only natural then that there would have to be a limiting of scope with regards to game plan given the concussive nature of Munster’s games since the home contest against Ulster.
The harder the game, the tougher the rehab after, and the less likely you are to get meaningful collective reps on the training paddock. That bleeds into the week after and the week after until this weekend just gone.
Every week from the Ospreys away game in the Liberty until the game at the weekend, Munster have been playing serious opposition with various levels of player availability in that time. Racing, a full strength Edinburgh side with Munster fully rotated, Saracens twice, Connacht away, Leinster at home without our internationals, Ulster away, Racing in Paris and then the Ospreys at home.
In that block of games, the only contest that I would say went wildly against the grain of what I expected team sheet on team sheet was the Ulster game and the weather dominated home game against a rotated Saracens side.
Johann van Graan, Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree will be disappointed to have no more Champions Cup rugby for the rest of this season, but they do have the guts of six months to impose their game plan on a squad that, for the time being at least, has fewer international call ups, some really talented younger players and some key players looking to return from injury.
Finishing third in the Champions Cup pool isn’t what we wanted at the start of the season, but it could well be what we need to lift a trophy in June.