Stephen Larkham has come to Munster with a mission to make a difference as the province looks to make the leap from being merely good to becoming a championship side.
The Australian World Cup-winning fly-half and former Wallabies assistant coach was recruited by Johann van Graan as Munster’s senior coach alongside incoming forwards coach Graham Rowntree for precisely those reasons and, judging by his first interactions with the media at the High Performance Centre in Limerick yesterday, the 45-year-old is not going to shirk the challenge.
The Canberra native has known the iconic Munster brand all his life but confessed to caring little about northern hemisphere ways during his playing days. As a coach he has studied developments above the equator more carefully but since head coach van Graan floated the possibility of joining the Munster set-up earlier this summer, there has been something of a crash course in a squad that has reached semi-finals in the last three seasons but failed to take the extra step after coming up against far better-equipped opposition.
Replacing attack coach Felix Jones, a surprise departure at the end of last season after rejecting a new contract, Munster have replaced a homegrown coaching work in progress with an Australian legend with Test-level coaching experience.
“I’m coming in here to make a change, there’s no doubt about that,” Larkham declared yesterday as he completed his first week as Munster’s senior coach.
“The club is built around success and we’re chasing that. We know the results from last year aren’t good enough, semi-finals in both competitions. Most people say that’s pretty good but it’s not good enough for us so we’re chasing the next level and I want to be part of that.
“There’s a fair bit of development coming from the southern hemisphere having now been in the coaching game for not that long, eight years; you hear plenty of stories about how difficult the competition is up here. At some stage I wanted to get up here and experience it.”
The two-way learning process will be reciprocated by Larkham’s southern hemisphere attacking sensibility, which he outlined as the way to effect change.
“Here at the moment, it’s focused on the attack. We had a good result from last year, if I look at some of the scores, seven tries averaged at Cork in our home games, I think we averaged 26 points a game in both competitions.
“You know, that’s pretty good. You probably have to factor in some of the lesser teams that came to play us in Cork and some of those scores that we had there in terms of those 26 points. But still, it’s a very good average for the season.
“So there are things here in place that are working really well, so it’s not about changing those, it’s about maintaining those. But there is a bit of detail lacking in those couple of games from last year and in my interview process, I identified a couple of areas where I felt the detail was lacking, in particular the use of skills with our forwards.
“So I really do want to make sure that from 1 to 15 across the park, or from 1 to 23, everybody who takes the field has the ability to make decisions and take the right decisions.
It’s going to take a little bit of time, so we’re not being unrealistic about it, but there is a good base there already, I would say, in terms of points scored and the way that we’ve attacked.
“But it’s something that we’ll chip away at. The beauty of the competition over here is you don’t always have this pre-season, my understanding is that is a much shorter pre-season usually so we had an unusually long pre-season.
“A lot of work has been put into that already in the pre-season, I think we’ve seen some rewards so far, like the attack last week was pretty good by Friday.
“Considering I was trying to implement everything early in the week, the guys picked it up like that by the end of the week, which was good. But we’re not unrealistic about a long season and you usually find gains in a long season as opposed to the pre-season.
The challenge will be trying to maintain those standards and continually finding improvement through the season.
As for bridging the gap to the European powerhouses such as Saracens, Racing 92, and Leinster, all of whom have denied Munster in either Champions Cup or PRO14 semi-finals on van Graan’s watch these past two seasons, Larkham would not estimate the extent of the separation between them, though both Racing and reigning European champions Sarries are in Munster’s pool this season.
“Well, we’ll have to wait and see, won’t we? We’ve got Saracens in Europe this year, two games, so that will be our test. If you look at the stats there’s certainly some elements of our game around strategy that can be improved. I watched that (semi-final) a couple of months ago and we just got out-kicked.
“Saracens did a better job with the ball in the air, and for us that’s normally a strength, we’re a pretty good kicking team, particularly kicking from nine, but they beat us in that aspect of the game. They were more efficient coming out of their end and to me there’s a little bit of a strategy we can improve around that because we’ve certainly got the talent.”