Stephen Larkham earned himself a deserved reputation as one of the most stylish rugby players of his generation when representing Australia on 102 occasions.
So it came as quite a surprise yesterday when Larkham, nowadays the senior coach at Munster Rugby having figured in a similar role with the Brumbies back home, declared the “skill levels over here are probably better than in Australia”.
While acknowledging the massive differences that prevail between the two countries, especially where weather is concerned, he insisted he very much likes what he has seen since his arrival in Ireland last summer.
““But I’ve been really impressed with the players in the first five rounds of the PRO14,” he said. “I think the talent, the skill level over here is probably better than in Australia. It is said that Irish skills aren’t what they should be.
“Well, that’s because the conditions are completely different. Honestly I was very impressed with the skill levels of these players. I’m not saying Irish players, I’m saying Munster players… their skill levels are good and their ability to learn things is definitely better than some Australian players.”
Larkham had good friends to advise him about making the massive decision to uproot his family and leave the many home comforts of sunny Canberra behind to take up his role as senior coach at a club many thousands of miles away.
And he also underlines that the name of Munster in a rugby context meant an awful lot to him.
We are back at @ThomondStadium on Saturday evening as Ulster visit Limerick for the season's first Interpro (5.15pm).— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) November 3, 2019
Both teams have started the season strongly so it should be a cracker!
Get your tickets ⬇️#MUNvULS #SUAF 🔴
“Laurie Fisher was an assistant coach with me at the Brumbies and also Tony McGowan, they had been over here as coaches, but of course Munster is well-known around the world,” he said.
“It’s synonymous with the Red Army and with its history of success. It’s a great place to be with a good start to the season, great support around the team, beautiful HPC — and a nice house I’m moving into at the moment.
“I guess the weather is beginning to turn a little, that’s the only thing I have to get used to. In Australia right now it’s 31 degrees, we’re lucky to get above 10 here and everybody keeps telling how it’s going to get colder and worse. Everything else is just wonderful.”
So, is everything really all that rosy in the Munster garden in Stephen Larkham’s eyes?:
“Apart from the Cheetahs, we are happy with the way we are going,” he insisted. “I believe we have been improving ever since and we scored nice tries at the week-end in some really difficult conditions in Wales. The boys did a fantastic job and executed the game plan very well.
“We’re pushing for improvements in every area. There were elements of attack not quite there at the moment but we are working on that. As I said, that was a good performance and we scored some pretty fine tries from all over the park. If you look at our attack, if you look at any attack, you want to be unpredictable but also dangerous across the park, not just five metres out from the opposing try line.
“If you look at the last five rounds, you’re only as good as your last game and that was pretty good. We’ve got a changing squad for this week against Ulster at Thomond Park. It’s a new challenge for us but on the back of the last game, I’m very happy with where things are.
“We’ve had two good days of preparation for these Interpros and European Cup games. Obviously the pressure will be there from the crowd and potentially from the media but from our perspective, we will try to keep the preparation the same as for the Pro 14.”
Larkham was non-committal as to the availability of Joey Carbery for the European games away to Ospreys and at home to Racing 92 later this month — “We haven’t got a long or short term idea about Joey,” he commented — but stressed: “The two boys, JJ (Hanrahan) and Tyler (Bleyendaal) have been doing a great job so we have some good cover there which is fortunate for us”.
And there’s the return of the World Cup dozen this week.
“Guys are coming back from higher duties so there’s no reason to say they haven’t justified their position in our team either”, he commented while also hinting that some at least will have to work for their places.
“The guys who have played the last five rounds have done an amazing job. There were some stand-out performances last weekend and some of those players won’t play this weekend and that is incredibly unfair on them.
“But you have to look at the season as a whole and understand there will be rotation. And it’s not a bad time to do it after you’ve played well. You prepare yourself for the next time and that’s realistically what happens. You’re out for a week but it’s not a time to rest, you might be back in sooner than you think. It’s a big squad so we have to realise what game-time is needed.”
While in no way dismissing the arrival for next season of the two Springboks World Cup winners Damien De Allende and RG Snyman, Larkham joined with head coach Johann van Graan in stating that nothing had been signed and delivered just yet.
“There are negotiations to go before we lock that in,” he said.
Van Graan clarified the situation further: “We are in advanced discussions with both players, but there are no contracts signed at this stage. We are confident there will be a commitment in the future, subject to conditions, but at this stage no contracts have been signed and we have nothing official to confirm.”