The province has been winning tricky games on the road this season that they might have crumbled in a year ago which in turn has made a squad rotation policy easier to handle when you are the player on the wrong side of selection calls.
Dave Kilcoyne recognises the way that resilience is growing within the Munster camp, and on a personal level it has helped the loosehead prop deal with competition for places in the province, where James Cronin has nudged him aside for today’s Heineken Cup clash with Perpignan, and the Ireland squad, where he was usurped by Leinster’s Jack McGrath for last month’s Tests.
Equally, Kilcoyne knows this newly-acquired collective resolve will be put to the ultimate test today as Munster’s European hopes go on the line at Stade Aimé Giral as they aim to follow up their 36-8 home win in Limerick last Sunday.
“I think the squad is maturing and people often harp on about our game plan but I think it’s more that now people are sure about what our overall goal is to do,” Kilcoyne told the Irish Examiner this week.
“If we have to win ugly, we’ll win ugly but we’re still winning and our ultimate goal is pulling points out of every single game. That’s hugely crucial to us, including in the Rabo, and building that mental strength within the squad and just pushing on from there.
“Going over to Perpignan, we know their background and how good they are at home. They nearly beat Clermont there, the week before we played them, so it’s a huge challenge and a massive test of our mental strength and we’re all relishing the occasion.
“Whether it’s me or James who starts, however long you’re on the pitch, it’s about making sure you deliver.”
Cronin’s emergence as a viable contender for the Munster loosehead berth is perhaps easier to handle for Kilcoyne given how quickly he had made the position his own just 12 months ago at the expense of the now retired Marcus Horan and departed Wian du Preez. His early-season form in the autumn of 2012 earned him a call into the Ireland squad and a first cap off the bench against South Africa and by the end of the season he had established himself as the main rival to first-choice Test loosehead Cian Healy.
This season it has been Cronin and McGrath’s turn to shine but, still only 24 years of age, Kilcoyne feels the rivalries are spurring him on to higher levels.
“Everyone says competition makes the squad healthier and makes everyone strive to be better. Obviously last year I was competing with Cian for that Irish spot, now you’ve James here and Jack (McGrath) up there, and they’re both doing really well.
“We’ve a bit of rotation policy here which means everyone seems to be getting games so, yeah, it puts extra pressure on which probably makes you play that extra bit better. So competition tends to bring the best out in players.
“When I came in I had Wian, Marcus, Dave Ryan and I’m still only 24. So I’d like to think that I’ve a huge amount to offer. There is competition and I’m always trying to look ahead and there’s no point in being too focused on other people. I think sometimes you just have to look at yourself and control the controllables, so I’m just trying to look at myself as much as possible, pick areas of the game I think I can improve on and see what happens from there. It’s about constantly working, getting in maybe extra weights sessions or extra skills. I would always be of the firm opinion that controlling what you can control, that starts at home by looking at yourself.
“So, competition is healthy but I’m just focusing on myself, trying to play as well as I can for Munster and I’m dying to get back involved with Ireland.”
With Healy just a year older than Kilcoyne, it seems Irish head coach Joe Schmidt is set to benefit from a long-running rivalry between a quartet of looseheads. Last month, tighthead veteran Mike Ross told the Irish Examiner he thought props only came of age in their late 20s and into their early 30s but when you’re young it is not so easy to take that long view, and Kilcoyne is certainly not one to bide his time.
“I’d have a different opinion to that. I suppose Mike looks at it having maybe come in to it a bit later but I’d be challenging myself now. I’d like to think you pick on form and not age. I do understand there’s a notion there that props come into their prime when they’re a little older but I think you could be foolish and rely on that and maybe rest on your laurels and hope that it happens.
“I’d rather focus on the now and try and make myself the best player I can be today and tomorrow. It’s going well but obviously these next few weeks are crucial for Munster and then you’re into the Six Nations and obviously I’m dying to be back as a part of that.”
Kilcoyne had been one of the surprise omissions from Schmidt’s squad for the Guinness Series of Tests last month against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand, the incoming former Leinster boss picking his ex-provincial duo Healy and McGrath as well as the older Tom Court of Ulster.
The Munster man was praised by his own head coach Rob Penney for the way he reacted to the snub but he admitted his exclusion, the news of which was delivered by Schmidt over the phone, did prey on his mind and he is determined not to let it happen again.
“Of course. You get setbacks in this game and it’s how you deal with these things. I got a call to say I wasn’t involved. I was bitterly disappointed and I’d have love to have contributed to the November series but it wasn’t to be.
“So I’ve just been trying to do my best to make it impossible to leave me out for the Six Nations. That call will come down to the national coaches but I’m just going to do everything in my power to make it an impossible decision to leave me out.
“Joe called me and went through a few things with me which I suppose there’s no more you can ask from a coach to do. It’s just now trying to focus everything on Munster and as the saying goes, you look after your own backyard and the rest will come. So I’m just trying to play as well as I can for Munster and win as many times as we can, and hopefully some good comes of that.
“It’s never an easy call, I suppose, a coach ringing a player to tell him he’s dropped from a squad but yeah, it gives you maybe an extra incentive every time you pull on a jersey to try and push on from red to green and by playing well for the red is how you do it.
“All my focus now is purely on Munster this weekend and taking it game by game.”