The hiring of Graham Rowntree and Stephen Larkham is no guarantee of success. But if you were looking for a way to push Munster on from recent losses, the hiring of this kind of combined coaching experience would be exactly how you would go about it.
For that, the PGB of Munster Rugby deserve unanimous praise. The voluntary exit of Flannery and Jones at the end of last season combined with the disappointing ends in Coventry and Dublin could have been enough to cast a pallor over an extremely important pre-season for Munster Rugby.
Why is it important? I believe that Munster are at the point where we’re either going to improve on our top four position or fall back.
Three years of semi-final finishes in Europe combined with a final and two semi-final losses in the PRO12/14 are far from poor but you don’t get any trophies for them.
Munster’s position as a top four side in the PRO14 and Europe is not a permanent thing. As much as we might want Munster to push through to make the finals of both competitions and, perhaps, even win them – that is not a guarantee.
Our position in that top four is not a constant base to be built from. Without improvement from the end of 2018/2019, a regression is actually more likely than just staying where we are, given the relative improvement of the sides around us, above us and directly below us.
Make no mistake, World Cup or not, this is a crucial preseason coming up for Munster Rugby.
So, in that context, losing your forwards coach and backs/attack coach in May is about as worrying a development as you could get.
Yet, inside two months, Munster and the IRFU have managed to land two of the premier coaches in the game available in 2019. That creates two things that I don’t think are bad things – expectation and a spotlight.
This, in essence, is something of a new broom. While Johann Van Graan will oversee the entire on-field operation, there are two new, highly experienced voices in charge of the forwards and the overall attacking structure.
That isn’t a tacit criticism of Flannery and Jones – who did very well given their relative lack of top level coaching experience outside Munster – it’s just a statement of reality.
Flannery has four years of coaching experience at Munster since 2014. Jones has three years of experience as an attack coach.
In comparison, Rowntree was a scrum and forwards coach for England for longer than both Flannery and Jones have been coaching. Rowntree has been on three Lions tours as a scrum specialist and a forward coach.
Stephen Larkham has been involved in top level Super Rugby since 2012. He’s been a head coach.
He’s coached a side in a World Cup final and he’s pit his wits against the All Blacks every year for the past four seasons.
Ideally, I think Munster would have liked both men to continue on with the province – with Jones perhaps operating with someone like Larkham above him, but it wasn’t to be.
For the players coming back in preseason, this is an exciting and extremely challenging time. Who wouldn’t have instant respect for Rowntree and Larkham when they walk into a team meeting?
Who wouldn’t be on their toes from the minute these names were announced knowing that there’s a chance to come in and really upset the established order in a few different positions?
The expectation is that these two coaches will improve Munster in the key areas where we fell short at the top level and that mainly falls on the players now.
That is something that should excite the squad because some will either flourish to the point where they are live contenders for Irish jerseys under Andy Farrell, or they’ll have to find space at another club.
These appointments actually are a tacit backing of the squad to find what they need to win from inside the group, rather than signing one or two guys extra guys from outside.
But with that backing comes a responsibility to improve and, quite frankly, a question might well be asked of a few players that if they can’t be improved under the likes of Rowntree and Larkham, maybe they can’t be improved at all.
I’ve received more than a few messages from people over the last few days wondering what the impact of not having a former Munster player involved with the coaching staff will be.
It’s hard to say exactly. The “Munster Boot Room” philosophy has been a near constant at the province since the early 2000s but the staff as they currently stand won’t have any ex-Munster player or coach in place for the first time in the professional era so this is new territory for everyone.
While I can see the benefits of having an ex-Munster player on the coaching staff, I personally don’t think it’s the be all and end all.
Having an all-Munster coaching ticket from 2014 to 2016 didn’t stop results or performances teetering towards sporting disaster by the end of 2015/2016 and it didn’t prevent rampant criticism of the coaches either.
The major qualifications that Munster coaches require in 2019 are experience and quality.
The likes of Jim Williams, Doug Howlett and John Langford – men who helped shaped the Munster we know today – weren’t from here, but the impact they had was profound.
The Munster Way is strong enough to shape all who enter it and be driven on by the players who have lived the Munster Way for the last decade.
Are we to assume that the squad will forget who they play for and what they represent because someone who won a Heineken Cup medal in 2006 or 2008 isn’t standing in UL every week?
All that matters is quality. Any sporting culture that isn’t enhanced by quality, experienced outside voices is a sporting culture that was on the slide anyway.
The Munster Way isn’t that brittle, or fragile. If someone from Munster is added to the ticket eventually, brilliant, but if not that’s OK too.
The pressure now is on the squad to live up to the backing that these two hires imply, and rightly so.