Last month’s Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Saracens may well spur Munster on to Guinness PRO12 success but it is clear that the ramifications are running much deeper for the province’s coaches.
Director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has not shied away from accepting the coaches’ blame for the comprehensive defeat dished out at Aviva Stadium by a team that would go on to successfully defend its European crown with a victory over Clermont Auvergne last Saturday in Murrayfield.
“The thing about coaching is you learn the most out of matches like that,” Erasmus said this week as he looked forward to Saturday’s PRO12 semi-final at home to Ospreys. “Not the obvious things everybody sees but the things you see and analyse and then still you couldn’t do something about them on a Saturday.
“Some people say that’s due to personnel. That’s not due to personnel. That’s due to a combination of coaches and players and that gives me a hell of an amount of hope. If a team like Saracens, it took them eight or nine years, to build into something like that. I’ve coached a lot of those players, Schalk Brits, Schalk Burger, Michael Rhodes, Vincent Koch, Neil De Kock, worked with a lot of those guys for years and to see the things they’re doing currently, it gives you hope. It tells you those guys did amazing things with that group of players.” For Erasmus and assistants Jerry Flannery, Felix Jones and the boss’s fellow South African Jacques Nienaber, the message is obvious, to do a similar job with Munster will take time. And defence coach Nienaber for one is excited at the prospect.
There have been some temporary fixes along the way since that 26-10 defeat on April 22 and Munster have responded well with bonus-point wins over Treviso and Connacht to finish the regular season top of the PRO12 table.
Yet Nienaber, who cited inconsistent defensive pressure against Saracens as a specific problem under his remit, admits that the real work will start this summer, the South African’s second pre-season at Munster.
“Treviso was the first step towards that. It’s going to be tough to change that in three (remaining) games. We probably need a pre-season.
“Last pre-season was ‘listen, I’m Jacques, I’m going to be the defence coach, I want us to try and do this, I would like to change this or that’. So we had to implement the system and them getting used to what I want, what I don’t want, me getting used to the players, you now this is in his skillset, that’s not in his skillset but we don’t have time to work on that so let’s maybe alter the system to fit the skillset a little bit better. So we had to find a balance.
“Now, we’re in a position where we don’t have to teach a new system again. We’ve been doing it and everybody’s comfortable in it, now it’s to enhance and have a post-season review and ask ‘guys, what worked well? Let’s evolve now as a team’.
Evolution rather than revolution is the key for Nienaber.
“The challenge is not to... I sometimes use the analogy that sometimes you bake a fantastic chocolate cake, you’re in a chocolate cake baking competition and it’s a hell of a good chocolate cake. Then you have a post-season review and all these ideas come in and you start throwing them into this chocolate cake and you somehow end up in a chocolate cake-baking competition with a fruitcake.
“So that’s going to be our challenge too: to still keep what made Munster Munster and to try and enhance things you can improve without dishing up something completely new. We don’t want a fruitcake.”
The obvious question to ask is what is the outcome of such a scenario?
“A fruitcake,” Nienaber replies, completely deadpan before smiling and adding “a disaster”.
The first step to avoiding the fruitcake begins when the players return from their summer breaks.
“The biggest changes happen in pre-seasons. We all make notes during the season. ‘Did you see the good lineouts Zebre has? That short lineout worked well, it was tough to defend, we must try and incorporate that within our good four-man lineout’.
“Sometimes it’s just presenting those things but again, don’t make fruitcakes. Let’s not discard the four-man lineout we have just because Zebre’s worked well against us. That’s going to be the balance, to bring new ideas to the party and implement them, see if they work but still keep our good stuff. I don’t think we’re doing a lot wrong. I think we’re doing more right that we’re doing wrong, with the personnel we have. There’s two things that lead to success: your plans, your systems, but also the individual. You can have the best system or plan in the world but if the individual within that is not able to provide the necessary skillset make it work, then it won’t work.”
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