The clock ticked past 83 minutes, Munster kicked for the corner on the last play of the game, with the backs and forwards uniting to drive the ball over the line for the bonus-point win. I had to double-check the TV replay to make sure it wasn’t O’Gara kicking to the five-metre line, Sheahan throwing to O’Connell in the lineout, or Jason Holland joining the maul to drive it over the line.
James Cronin’s bonus point try at the end of Saturday’s Champions Cup opener was created deep within Munster’s European DNA — but that historical throwback does raise some concerns ahead of Saturday’s visit to Thomond Park of Racing 92.
Munster are in the midst of an evolution of playing style not too dissimilar to the one Declan Kidney faced back in the mid-noughties. When he rejoined Munster in 2005 he needed to find a cutting edge that would see Munster over that final hurdle and ultimately lead to the holy grail of the Heineken Cup. To complement Munster’s traditional forward power he added Trevor Halstead’s offloading and promoted local talent such as Ian Dowling, Tomás O’Leary, and Barry Murphy to European starters.
Munster came into this season having made European semi-finals in each of the last three years, but that has been their ceiling and the reality is that there is still a long way to go to get back to the very top.
Over the last few years, Munster have played a relatively low-risk game plan that wasn’t too dissimilar to the likes of Leinster and Saracens. They utilised a possession game, with heavy carriers working in tight pods to grind down or run over the opposition. The plan was to batter the opposition into submission until they either ran over them or the defence couldn’t reset in time and created an overlap to run in the try.
With this gameplan, Munster couldn’t generate the quick go-forward ball required and too often were forced to kick ball away. If they couldn’t go over them, they didn’t possess the game plan or skills to go round them.
Johann van Graan has recognised the need to evolve and the arrival of Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree are key to this process. They bring experience, fresh perspective, and new ideas to the group as well as much needed support for van Graan himself.
Most striking in the changes Larkham has implemented so far has been the tempo at which Munster play. No longer do we see a committee meeting, orchestrated by the scrum-half, at the base of a ruck, followed by a short pop pass to a static carrier who has one or two players latching to drive him forward into a wall of defenders.
Now the focus is to move the ball quickly — quick, short passing between forwards, offloads before or in the tackle, pop passes off the ground, and any number of players having to step into the scrum-half role to keep the ball moving and change the point of attack before the defence can reset.
Larkham requires a running threat from his out-half and is happy to utilise different players popping up as first receiver to achieve this. The ball carrier has multiple support options available and decoy runners that keep the opposition defences guessing. Munster’s new style is challenging players skillsets and instead of looking for contact, players are being asked to look for space and improve their handling, passing, decision-making, and offloading.
On Saturday, Munster showed glimpses of this new style but given the amount of possession they had against a weakened Ospreys side, they will be disappointed in the performance, despite picking up the maximum match points.
Whilst Larkham has been here since August, the internationals have had only a few weeks since their return from Japan to grasp the nuances of the new style, patterns, and timings required of them. The team selection meant nine of the starting 15 had little time to get up to speed so therefore the lack of cohesion and assurance under pressure is understandable.
It all leaves van Graan with some interesting decisions for the week ahead. First and foremost, he has to hope JJ Hanrahan is fully fit as his running threat from out half is vital to Munster’s new game plan.
Graham Rowntree has to identify, and more importantly solve, the reason behind Munster conceding so many scrum penalties in the last two games while JP Ferreira needs to work with the players on lowering their tackle height and improving their discipline in defence.
Van Graan also has to decide which players are now comfortable enough to play the new style against Racing 92 because Munster can’t afford indecision, errors, indiscipline or reverting back to old ways if they want to progress from this pool.
- The author can be found on Twitter at @overthehillprop or on his website.