With another new coaching ticket in place for next season, patience has become a common theme of conversation amongst Munster fans- whether it's showing it or running out of it. We look at the terrace temperature of two well-versed followers.
Munster fans need to give this coaching ticket time. Success is not an annual right
The signing of Stephen Larkham as senior coach has been broadly welcomed and while a lot of fans are hoping this is part of the jigsaw to finally bring Munster Rugby back to the top table, you only have to scratch the surface of social media to see the knives being sharpened should Munster fail.
Unfortunately this is not something new and the fact that there is no indigenous coach on the ticket seems to make this a much easier position for people to take as opposed to being critical of a homegrown ‘legend’.
Change, historically, is not something that has sat easily in Munster Rugby circles — Jim Williams calling out the top brass for impacting team preparation and player welfare by continuing with a dual training base; Rob Penney’s upskilling of players and style changes; and the push back from the discussion of Thomond Park naming rights while Munster Rugby struggled to pay the stadium loan and had regular annual cashflow deficits. These have all provoked negative reactions from fans, media, and former players alike.
With most of the latest changes now in place, what Munster require is stability, specifically with the coaching ticket. Four head coaches in the last seven seasons tells its own story. It’s hard to have consistency in playing style, player progression, and succession planning with that many changes at the top and that is why the likes of Van Graan (pictured), Ferreira, Rowntree, and Larkham need to stick around long term.
Munster and the Professional Game Board of the IRFU have done a remarkable job in securing such an experienced and talented coaching team but it will be of little use if there are further significant changes in the next season or two.
Munster have a consistency that is virtually unrivalled, their ability to make the knockout stages of competitions year after year would be seen by most clubs as a fantastic achievement. But due to their own historical success and the more recent success of neighbours Leinster, merely getting to the knockouts is not acceptable.
A lot of fans use silverware as the metric when comparing to Leinster but seem to forget that it was only a few seasons ago Leinster lost five of their six European pool games — and yet Leo Cullen remained as head coach.
Munster fans need to give this coaching ticket time, accept that success is not an annual right, and let the coaches develop the players and attacking style. The coaches, in return, need to commit long term to Munster and tap into the likes of Niall O’Donovan as team manager if and when information on ‘the Munster way’ is needed.
I don’t believe Munster are a million miles away from getting back to the top. The playing squad has a good age profile with most players in or entering their prime. The quality of players coming through underage into the academy is there for all to see, so what is now needed from the coaching ticket is to integrate those coming through into the first team and enhance the attacking play to supplement one of the best defences in Europe.
The final bits of the puzzle will be the replacement CEO and the additional coach, likely to have a remit as a skills coach. The new CEO is vital as Van Graan has taken over some of the tasks, such as player contracts, that has traditionally sat with Garrett Fitzgerald.
Van Graan needs to be fully resourced and supported both on and off the pitch and what Munster need most of all is patience from the fans and media as they try to bed this new coaching ticket in.
The answers are already in the province — I genuinely believe that
Whenever you talk about ‘transition’ when it comes to rugby teams becoming something else from what they are now, people tend to roll their eyes like a slot machine. That’s because ‘transition’ has become a by-word for “we’re not winning anything this year and here’s why” and, when it comes to Munster since, say, 2012 it’s been coaching transition after coaching transition after coaching transition.
Since Tony McGahan left for a job in Australia, Munster have seen four head coaches and four whole or partial coaching-ticket replacements in the intervening seven years. Rob Penney, Anthony Foley, Rassie Erasmus and now Johann Van Graan.
Your Rugby Success for Dummies booklet will tell you on the first page of the chapter on Dynasty Building that success is usually built on consistency in the core areas of the team - half-back in particular - and/or who’s sitting in the stands whispering into walkie-talkies behind the laptops.
Munster haven’t really had either of these as they changed head coaches every two years, for one reason or another. So when it comes to the usual indicators of success, Munster haven’t had the building blocks one normally associates with trophy-winning teams.
The coaching consistency just hasn’t been there. A new coach usually brings his own way of wanting to do things and staff that help him do that so when you’ve got four head coaches in seven years, it’s hard to build that year-on-year momentum that tends to end in silverware when the organisation changes direction every two years.
Now it’s Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree’s turn - under Van Graan’s leadership - to help mould this team into one that can (a) win trophies and (b) generate test level players for the Irish team at a rate that exceeds what has gone before in the last few seasons. Is it more transition? That remains to be seen.
Just from an experience POV, both men are an ‘upgrade’ on Flannery and Jones, the men they replaced after both former players decided not to take up a contract back in May. That experience will be invaluable in helping to bring through the talented group of Munster players that are finally beginning to emerge into the first team.
The likes of Fineen Wycherley, Gavin Coombes, Shane Daly, Calvin Nash, Jack O’Sullivan, Keynan Knox along with the recent Irish U20 Grand Slam winners Sean French, Jonathan Wren, Josh Wycherley, John Hodnett and Craig Casey offer the talent that could backbone Munster — and Ireland — for years to come, with the right coaching and backing.
In terms of Munster’s future, this coming four-year cycle is vitally important. Leinster got it right in 2015-16 with their academy crop and it paid off handsomely for them; now Munster must do the same. The answers aren’t in a big money Wallaby/All Black/Springbok signing, they are already in the province — I genuinely believe that.
These two coaching hires show me that the IRFU and Munster believe the same. Don’t buy from outside: grow from within. Signing guys like Larkham and Rowntree isn’t a guarantee of success, but it’s a good place to start.
Events away from the pitch are as important. Permanently replacing the great Garrett Fitzgerald will be a tough ask, but if the right person is found there then it’ll make managing the on-field business much easier. It’ll take some individual to come close to what Garrett achieved in his tenure but if we get someone who even comes close, Munster won’t be doing badly at all.