It’s nearly ten years since Munster won their first of two European Cups, now led by a former on-field general, Ireland’s southern province will be keen to try and return to the glory days of the last decade.
As the Irish internationals filter back into the squad, and the new arrivals integrate more and more by the week, Munster can be pleased with how their season has started. They sit 3rd in the Pro 12 having registered six wins from seven games, with their only defeat coming in injury time, away to the second-placed Scarlets.
Despite this promising start, their supporters haven’t been able to relax until the final whistle as of yet, with just a solitary game won by more than five points (an eight-point win at home to Cardiff last month).
In his debut season as Munster coach, local hero Anthony Foley led his side to the Pro 12 final, but flopped in the European Cup. His side won just three games from six in the pool of a competition the province had become synonymous with – in its previous guise at least.
Foley, a former Munster captain and number 8, will need to inspire a much stronger showing amongst Europe’s elite to ward off any questions about his suitability to the head coaching role. The previous incumbent, the much maligned Rob Penney, steered the province to consecutive semi-finals during his two-year tenure.
Reasons to be Cheerful:
Having been drawn in the pool of death last year, Munster have avoided Europe’s biggest hitters this time around. While the presence of an Italian team in the pool, which generally results in two teams advancing to the quarter-finals, is an added bonus. Furthermore, the reigning French champions and top seed Stade Francais are currently floundering at the wrong end of their domestic league, which may divert attention from their European adventure towards consolidating their position in the Top 14.
It hasn’t often been riveting watching Munster in recent years but they now possess a back division overflowing with attacking options. Andrew Conway and Gerhard Van den Heever have looked impressive so far this season. Simon Zebo and Keith Earls, both returning from Irish World Cup duty, will provide further potency to the wider channels, while the short-term signing of Lucas Amorosino – fresh from an inspired World Cup with Argentina – adds even more attacking intent.
Denis Hurley is growing into his role as an inside centre, and while he has his limitations his physicality is creating space around him for others to thrive. Add new signing Francis Saili and Tyler Bleyendaal, who missed all of last year with injury, to the mix and Foley will be hard pushed selecting his outside backs.
Reasons to be Fearful:
For generations Munster rugby has been associated with hard-nosed, abrasive forward play and of keeping calm in the midst of a storm. The iconic Paul O’Connell and his long-term partner Donncha O’Callaghan have departed for pastures new, while captain Peter O’Mahony and international colleague Tommy O’Donnell are on the long-term injury list.
This robs Munster of 246 caps worth of international experience, before you consider the recent enforced and untimely retirement of vice-captain Felix Jones, which has deprived the side of yet another leader and strong dressing room voice. In addition, there is a surfeit of talent in the tight head position, which means the southern province’s pack has an unusually underwhelming feel to it this term.
The Red Army may have enough depth to adequately cover the lock and backrow positions in the early stages of the tournament, but it is filling the number 3 jersey that will be of most concern. In the wet and windy winter of European rugby, the scrum takes on added importance and with an unreliable anchor Munster will struggle to assert themselves.
BJ Botha is looking his age, Stephen Archer has never delivered on the promise he showed in his youth, while new short-term Uruguayan signing Mario Sagario has never been tested at this level of club rugby.
There could be trouble ahead.
CJ Stander, the newly-qualified Irish number 8 has been Munster’s best player for the past 18 months, picking up eight Pro 12 Man of the Match awards last season and excelling in each game this term. The onus will be on him even more now in lieu of the absence of so many key players. In order to emphasise the South African’s importance to team, he will fill the void left by O’Mahony by wearing the captain’s armband until the Corkman returns.
The 25-year-old has really bought into the Munster mentality during his three years at the province to date and has become a real crowd favourite. The former South Africa U-20s captain recently committed his international future to Ireland, and he will be looking to impress Joe Schmidt and earn a place in Ireland’s redemptive Six Nations squad in the spring with a strong European campaign.
One to Watch:
Francis Saili. The 24-year-old may not be a household name in the Northern Hemisphere right now, but once fans get to witness him in European action, his name will be widely repeated. The centre had been a regular for the Blues in the Super Rugby competition since his 2012 debut and he made such an impression in his rookie season that he won two caps for the All Blacks the following year, aged just 22.
Munster haven’t had many backs that have gone on to be a success since Saili’s fellow All Black Doug Howlett arrived in 2008, however the former Blue has already brought a flair and excitement to the Reds midfield in just a handful of appearances. He has the power to punch through defences, while he also has the handling ability to set the speedsters outside him free. He will be central to prising open opposition defences this season.
Treviso (H), Stade Francais (A), Leicester Tigers (H), Leicester Tigers (A), Stade Francais (H), Treviso (A).
Munster certainly have the capabilities to progress from the pool stages in Europe for the 15th time in 17 years. Topping the pool will most likely set up a home quarter-final, and although fortress Thomond has been breached more frequently in Europe in the last number of years, it’s still a formidable venue and a place many visitors will be keen to avoid.
Stade Francais are set to be the biggest obstacle to Munster’s hopes of topping the pool, which makes the clashes in Paris (November 22) and Thomond (January 16/17) central to the final standings.
Munster look best placed of the Irish provinces to challenge for European honours at present, but a semi-final appearance may be as good as it gets.
Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena