With the new Anthony Foley era about to get underway Matt Cassidy previews Munster’s upcoming season in Europe and the Pro 12.
The Southern province heads into the new campaign with a sense of the unknown. Anthony Foley steps into the breach after Rob Penney decided to up sticks and move to the Land of The Rising Sun.
Experienced playing personnel has moved on including James Coughlan, James Downey and Casey Laulala. The Munster faithful will be wondering whether their heroes will continue the lateral passing game of the last two seasons or revert back to their beloved direct forward power play.
If there ever was a man who encapsulates what it means to play for Munster, then Anthony Foley is he. Passion and wearing his heart on his sleeve are the admirable qualities he was known for on the pitch. However, in the coach’s box a cool, calculated head is what is called for. The hope is that his involvement as forwards’ coach over the past few years will allow for a seamless transition to top brass.
‘Axel’ will need to formulate a game plan that the Munster players can subscribe to and implement immediately. Their attacking play over the last two seasons never clicked. Penney’s plan was to give the ball width with their tight forwards playing along the five metre lines. The agoraphobic Reds were uncomfortable with this style of play and many of Munster’s attacks were characterised by poor passing and simply running out into touch. It is likely that under the Shannon man’s tutelage, forward play will be the order of the day.
Irish people are parochial by nature so Foley, a firm favourite at Thomond Park, will be given more leeway than Penney by the supporters if everything does not go according plan at the start. But if results and performances do not come, in time the former number eight’s dream job could quickly turn into a nightmare.
As outlined above Munster’s main concern will be what approach they will adopt for matches; their traditional forward orientated play or persisting with Penney’s passing game. I expect along with every rugby viewer in Ireland that Foley will choose the former option.
The centre partnership should be a worry for the Munster faithful. The Heineken Cup wins of 2006 and 2008 involved a strong midfield which was potent in attack and brutal in defence. Last season Munster’s centres were chopped and changed weekly. With James Downey and Casey Laulala moving onto new challenges, the men who have been drafted in are Aussie, Andrew Smith and young Kiwi, Tyler Bleyendaal.
Smith has spent most of his career at the Brumbies, mainly as a replacement whereas Bleyenedaal comes with more of a reputation having captained the New Zealand U20s. How these two men perform could have a huge bearing on how the season will turn out for the Southerners.
The use of Paul O’Connell will as per usual be crucial to the Reds’ chances. Munster’s totemic leader can inspire the team to glory whenever the mood strikes. However the ginger lock, who turns 35 in October, will probably pick his matches for the upcoming season as he wishes to be fresh for his swansong at next year’s World Cup.
Short term Munster will want to create the fear factor around Thomond Park once again. If the home of Munster Rugby is heaving with their fanatical support then the Reds will be incredibly difficult to beat. Their home form will be vital if they are stand any chance of getting out of their European Pool as points on the road against Saracens, Clermont Auvergne and Sale Sharks could be as rare as hens teeth.
Over the whole season, Munster should be looking for a trophy. Under Rob Penney the Southerners reached three semi-finals but acquired zero silverware which ultimately led to the Kiwi coach bidding adieu to life in Limerick. Munster prides itself on success on the European stage but a Pro 12 title would represent a job well done for Anthony Foley’s charges.
To reach the Pro 12 playoffs is the minimum for this squad. This group have it within themselves to win the league but they must start to produce a consistency of performance which has been missing throughout the Peneny era. A difficult pool in Europe means qualification for the last eight would be a wonderful achievement.
With their famous fighting spirit seen in last year’s Euro odyssey still alive, nothing is impossible for Munster Rugby!
Matt Cassidy, Pundit Arena