The task facing Munster this season is simple in description, but incredibly difficult in application. Improve. Sure, every team is trying to improve, even double winners like Leinster, but the want alone isn’t enough especially when it comes to progressing in the Heineken Cup.
Over the last two seasons, Munster have reached something of a glass ceiling when it comes to the last four of Europe’s premier competition – 2017 saw a dispiriting overpowering by eventual champions Saracens while last year saw a disappointing loss to Racing 92 mainly based on an incredibly poor opening half hour. As Peter O’Mahony said at the time, he’s sick of learning lessons, and I’d wager that goes for Munster as a whole.
So what’s different? Well, this preseason gives Johan Van Graan and JP Ferreira a chance to impart their overall gameplan and defensive systems onto the Munster group, as well as finetune the patterns that we began to see towards the end of last season. That alone will be a big change, considering the disruption caused by essentially switching coaching tickets midway through last season.
The effect of that handover can’t really be understated but, in a way, the “make do” nature of transplanting coach philosophies can act as a crash course in getting a playing group up to speed on the demands of a coach like Johann Van Graan. Either way, a full preseason to knit together everything is the biggest part of any club’s season. We’ll see the results sooner rather than later.
The other main difference – and it’s a big one – is the addition of six new signings. Arno Botha, Mike Haley, Neil Cronin, Tadhg Beirne and Joey Carbery are serious additions that can all add something to Munster’s PRO14 and Heineken Cup squad depth, considerably.
Often the winning and losing of a season comes down to who has the most weapons still available come the business end of the competitions. By adding guys who can immediately start for Munster on a Heineken Cup matchday in Carbery, Botha, Beirne and Haley, Johann Van Graan has immediately strengthened his hand. Arno Botha will provide physicality, lineout options and a ball-carrying threat at 6 and 8.
The signing of Tadhg Beirne – one of the premier second rows in Europe over the last two seasons – will be an immediate boost to Munster’s pack and breakdown work. Mike Haley might not be a household name, or a like for like replacement for Simon Zebo’s inimitable style at fullback, but he is a highly efficient operator who will immediately demand attention.
Finally, in Joey Carbery, Munster have signed an Irish international that can fill a problem spot in the side right away and form a relationship with Conor Murray that could push Munster beyond the glass ceiling of the Heineken Cup semi-final stage.
If it all goes right, Munster’s wait for trophies could end this year. One thing is for certain – this is as good a Munster squad as we’ve seen in a number of years. Will it be enough? That’s the beauty and uncertainty of this time of year.