Munster Vs Leinster on the 23rd of January is set to be a huge fixture for Johann Van Graan’s men.
It has been a thrilling season so far for Munster with many aspects of the team’s play sure to be delighting the coaching team and it will soon be time to test themselves against the very best around.
The emergence of excellent young talent, the development of Stephen Larkham’s attacking play and the maintenance of Munster’s prided forward play under the guidance of Graham Rowntree are all things to be proud of up until this point. The sense of enthusiasm for the province’s prospects feels more palpable than it has been for a handful of years now and it exists for great reason.
From the season’s opener on the 3rd of October away to Scarlets right up to Saturday evening’s interpro victory away to Connacht, there has been little to warrant any criticism in Munster’s performance and now heading into a weekend where Covid-19 has meant there will be no game, it makes this the perfect time to examine the season so far in finer detail.
By reflecting, highlighting key results and inspecting the stats, it can hopefully portray a broader picture of where Munster stand heading into that enormous Leinster test on the 23rd. The heroics of the second half away to Clermont Auvergne demonstrated the breathtaking potential of this Munster team but now it is time to back it up and prove that famous day in France was no once off.
STYLE OF PLAY
Since Johann Van Graan took charge, Munster have always looked to maximize their strengths up front. Blessed with the destructive power engine of CJ Stander, the freakish athleticism of Tadhg Beirne and the dogged leadership of Peter O’Mahony, plotting to make inroads with intense brutality close to the breakdown is a perfectly sensible method of attack for this team.
Though without silverware, Munster have experienced relative success in recent years, establishing themselves as regular semi-finalists in Europe and rarely ever losing in the Pro14. The trouble for this group is that they have never managed to break into the top one percent alongside the Leinsters and Racing 92s of this world to collect winner’s medals for their endeavours.
The reason has been that such simple rugby, no matter how well executed, is now not enough to beat the very best in the modern rugby landscape. Despite inspired performances from figures like Stander, Kilcoyne and O’Mahony in recent semi-finals, the absence of a multi-dimensional , dynamic gameplan has found Munster wanting. When the robust Plan A failed, persistent box-kicking from the boot of Conor Murray became the over-utilized weapon of choice – and a weapon that was usually dealt with capably by the stronger sides in European Rugby.
Thankfully, this season that has begun to change. While the brilliance of the Munster forwards and the pin-point kicking of Murray remain valued and important, intricacies in the shape of strike-plays and tip-ons have managed to slowly fuse the forward and back divisions together in a way that makes Munster not only a powerful side to contain, but an unpredictable one too.
The sublime handling skills of hooker Kevin O’Byrne captured a lot of people’s attention in the early stages of the season and in recent weeks we have seen fellow forwards Gavin Coombes and James Cronin appearing equally adept at executing short passes and offloads to nearby teammates.
In the backline Munster are again predominately physical with the bruising centre partnership of World Cup winning Springbok Damian De Allende and Chris Farrell proving more and more of a handful for opposition with each passing week. The pairings’ displays against Clermont and Connacht in the past month have been their strongest showings yet as neither ever seem to fail making important yards across the gainline.
The shortage of creativity in Munster teams has been an ever-present talking point in years gone by and it is true that the back play is still a big work in progress for Munster and assistant coach Stephen Larkham. However, Munster have had no problems inventing opportunities and scoring tries for themselves this season because, as mentioned above, the emphasis has not been on having a dominant pack and creative backline, but instead developing a cleverly architected combination of the two. This season Munster have not attacked as backs and forwards, but as a team.
The best example is perhaps Mike Haley’s try away to Clermont at the Marcel Michelin:
Reflecting on the season so far, it is fair to say that the key ingredient to Munster’s ten wins in eleven outings has been the full squad effort. There is a greater depth to the Munster set-up this season than in recent memory and the blend of international stars, provincial veterans and the exuberance of youth has made for a squad packed with all sorts of qualities for every occasion.
In the frontrow James Cronin and Kevin O’Byrne have been absolutely outstanding, arguably enjoying their finest seasons for the province to date. The pair have played eight and nine games respectively this campaign and on top of their set-piece excellence and grunt around the breakdown, have thrown a combined 35 passes between them this campaign. 26 of them have come from the revolutionary O’Byrne, who at the age of 29, may very well have a good shot at retaining the Munster hooker jersey in the Champions Cup even when Niall Scannell is back available.
Tadhg Beirne was absent for a handful of weeks because of injury, but the second row’s monumental impact in the past month certainly makes him worthy of a mention. The 6’5 Kildare man is vital to Munster’s defensive efforts around the breakdown and will be key to any further success that Munster may enjoy this season. Beirne’s athleticism, work-rate, lineout-efficiency and skills are of elite standing and injuries allowing, is one of the most talented second rows in the northern hemisphere. No player in the Pro14 made more turnovers in a match since the start of 2020 than Beirne did against Connacht last weekend and you can read more about that incredible display from us here.
CJ Stander and Gavin Coombes have been far too much to handle for opponents so far this season with their prolific try scoring records and dynamic abilities around the park causing double trouble for defenders. Complemented by the maximum commitment of Peter O’Mahony, Munster appear to have struck gold in the backrow. Tough, hard-hitting, a nuisance at the breakdown and more than capable of breaking tackles, quite the unit has been assembled and the clash against Leinster’s international quality forward pack in Thomond Park will be essential viewing.
In the backs, JJ Hanrahan has stepped up to the plate admirably to steer Munster home in some tight contests with pin-point accuracy from the tee. Chris Farrell has bagged two tries this season and seems to be bubbling nicely towards hitting his best form in 2021 in the wake of aggressive performances that demonstrated true leadership skills in both the South of France and at the Sportsground.
While the backline hasn’t quite set alight yet this season there is every sign that the likes of Damian De Allende and Keith Earls are about to hit top form in the coming weeks and months – and once that happens there may not be very many better teams around.
The brightest element of Munster’s season so far has been the exciting influx of excellent young blood. Halfbacks Craig Casey and Ben Healy have captured the headlines by injecting energy and eye-catching skill levels from the bench in big games and it wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see their names in Irish squads before the year is out. Casey may well have the sharpest pass in the country right now and at a height of 5’5, there have been inevitable comparisons to another quick-firing scrumhalf of old – Peter Stringer. Healy provides a level-headed maturity that saw him kick the winning penalty away to Scarlets in the opening match of the season and has since made multiple intelligent kicks for the corners throughout the Winter months. His composure for a 21 year old sets him apart from most players his age and with Casey by his side, there is no reason why the pair can not become a mainstay in the Munster side for years to come.
Gavin Coombes has been every bit as important as any Munster forward this season, scoring seven tries and like his cousin Liam, boasts of good mobility and a polished pair of hands. John Hodnett tore up the U20 Six Nations at number eight for Ireland a couple of seasons ago and before injury looked to posses a similar skill-set to Coombes – aggressive, robust and more than capable of mixing it at professional level.
Though Munster are stacked at second row in the short to medium term with Tadhg Beirne, RG Snyman, Jean Kleyn and Billy Holland among the stars on the books, 6’9 Thomas Ahern has been making quite the name for himself around the camp and has demonstrated just why in his cameo appearances. The pace and skills of the big man are staggering and with an industrial work-rate not dissimilar to that of Jean Kleyn, the Waterford man is certainly worth keeping an eye out for.
Josh Wycherley has not gotten the most minutes out of all of the prospects knocking about Munster’s set-up, but the loosehead prop’s inspirational display when locking horns with imposing Frenchman Rabah Slimani in his European debut against Clermont surely goes down as the finest performance by a Munster youngster thus far this season. With Wycherley, Keynan Knox and Roman Salanoa providing back-up at prop this season, Munster are certainly stocked in the frontrow for the foreseeable future.
The full breakdown of Munster’s youth prospects’ minutes can be seen below:
There is a refreshing sense of optimism around Munster this season and it is providing an important tonic for supporters each weekend in the most challenging of times for everybody. Optimists will say that this is a team with all the talent necessary to win trophies and after an encouraging beginning to the season, Munster will only improve and improve from here under the guidance of excellent coaches.
The more pragmatic will say that they won’t be believers until Munster can step it up another gear and beat Leinster in that massive game at Thomond Park. There are some feelings that once Munster’s forward pack is matched, Van Graan’s team will have little else to fall back on other than a strong kicking game.
To overcome the best of the best, the hints we’ve seen towards a dynamic and fluid chemistry between forwards and backs in attack will need to rise to greater prominence and comprehensively prove that this is a new level of Munster team with new ideas and a wealth of new stars.
Whether Munster can pull the derby day result out of the bag on the 23rd against a locked and loaded Leinster remains to be seen but one thing is for certain, this young group of warriors have plenty of great days ahead of them.