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Irish Provincial Rugby Lowdown Part II – Munster & Connacht Analysed & Graded

Another season done and dusted, consigned to the history books. Ireland again sit atop the International tree in the Northern Hemisphere. This winning trophies thing has become all too easy. Too easy to a nation who until now weren’t used to it. Declan Kidney’s 2009 Grand Slam aside, Irish rugby fans were making do with the staple diets of triple crowns and near misses. There were occasional big wins against the biggest sides, but championships proved allusive. Joe Schmidt has altered perceptions, and now everyone expects Ireland to win every day they go out.

The national side are now experiencing unknown levels of success, while the provinces are struggling to stay relevant in European circles. The focus has changed. It’s no longer like the days when Munster initially, soon to be matched and surpassed by Leinster, were laying all before them to waste. Hoovering up European crowns.

The international team were always respected but never carried that same sense of awe and fear associated with Munster and Leinster at their peak. Joe Schmidt’s move through the ranks from Leinster to Ireland has greatly benefitted the national sides fortunes. Consecutive championships have been annexed, and this squad have now beaten every team they have encountered except the All Blacks. The national flower is blooming as never before.

However, for the first time in 5 years, and only the second time in 8, none of Ireland’s provinces have managed to pin their ribbons to a trophy of some sort. In order to keep feeding Ireland teams with players of championship credentials, the provinces need to get back to winning ways. It’s terrific to have a flower blossom after the culmination of years of growth and hard work. Without a strong root, the flower won’t bloom for very long though. Ireland is the flower, the provinces the roots. Click here for part I 

Munster:

Ireland’s southern province seem to be undergoing the longest “transitional phase” in sporting history. Since the last great day in their storied history when they claimed a second Heineken Cup title in 2008, Munster have been swimming against the tide. Now that Paul O’Connell has departed the men in red have lost their last fundamental link to that all-conquering team. Coaches have come and gone but the same level of success has never returned. Munster are also now the third biggest provider to the national team which reflects their dwindling status in the country.

Yet they remain better than the sum of their parts. Despite having a weaker team on paper, Munster were the last team flying the Irish flag in the Pro 12, making it to the final before being utterly outclassed by their Scottish counterparts Glasgow. The problem for Munster is lack of depth. The loss of Peter O’Mahony and Connor Murray in the build up to that final were blows they were unlikely to recover from. There is a considerable drop off in talent between the first 15 and their replacements. Added to these losses, Tommy O’Donnell’s absence was even more keenly felt in a make shift backrow for the final.

As proved in Munster defining European Cup fixture away to Saracens, when Murray was also missing, Duncan Williams isn’t anywhere near the standard required to replace the Irish number 9. In fairness to Williams it would be a hard job for anyone to replace one of the top scrum halves in world rugby but this loss just proves how heavily reliant Munster are on their couple of truly world class operators. More quality depth is deeded in the South but without the same external resources Leinster and Ulster can call on, it’s hard to see how Munster can compete in the top market required to bolster their squad. While furthermore the academy is falling well behind the other provinces in terms of numbers of players they have in the underage national representative squads.

A pool stage exit in Europe always hurts Munster hardest of all given their intrinsic history with the competition, and despite the fact they were in the most difficult of pools in the season just gone, supporters always expect more from the men in red in Munster. Pro 12 success would have boosted the atmosphere considerably but the crushing defeat in the final only heightened the pain of a disappointing season.

Season Grade: C-

Poor return in Europe, but given their team was far from the strongest on paper in the Pro 12 to finish level on points with the winners in the regular season and make the final offers some solace to the Munster faithful.

Connacht:

Everyone can resonate with the younger sibling who just isn’t that much of a threat to one’s own sporting prowess. Connacht are getting better, as proved by their best placed finish in the Pro 12 (7th), and on their day are always capable of stealing a win off their higher profile provincial rivals. Yet they are still some way behind their nearest and dearest, and consistency will always be a problem for a team with the most limited of resources and shallowest of playing pools in the country. Ultimately a poor run around the turn of the year cost them the chance of achieving the holy grail of a European Cup qualifying spot, but they can be pleased with their progress. Interest in rugby is getting stronger within Connacht, and the fan base is growing given the fact they are no longer league whipping boys.

They are developing some fine young talent and there is sure to be a number of Connacht players that will follow Robbie Henshaw into the Ireland setup over the coming seasons. Kieran Marmion and Eoin McKeon look to be best placed to make the step next. If Connacht can convince these players to stay out West they are capable of breaking into the top three within Ireland. However the highest level of European Cup rugby will almost certainly be a vital component in trying to retain the services of these fine players in the years ahead.

The narrow and controversial defeat at the hands of Gloucester in the European Cup playoff showed that Connacht are not far from the level required to break into the top tier of European rugby but a bit more nous is required. If they can add another player of two in the ilk of Bundee Aki and allow the likes of Jack Carthy to develop, they could be a genuine top 6 side next season.

Season Grade: B-

Probably would have taken 7th at the start of the season but ultimately will be disappointed after getting off to such a promising start. Plenty to look forward to next season.

Don’t forget to check out how Leinster and Ulster faired in Part I here.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.