For a coach still only weeks into his Munster tenure, Graham Rowntree’s affinity with his new surroundings is clear and obvious. Yet the forwards coach also knows that while his connection to the province and the players he works with has been immediate, the task of getting it and them to where they need to be will require patience and a lot more time.
Two weeks out from a European red-letter day in Paris, when Munster’s season will live or die on their ability to survive a Heineken Champions Cup pool game at Racing 92, Rowntree cautioned that for all the excitement promised by the arrival of himself and Stephen Larkham as senior coaches to work under Johann van Graan, there is still a long way to travel for this group.
Saturday’s home defeat to Leinster in the Guinness PRO14 could be used as exhibit A in Rowntree’s case for the prosecution as Munster played with purpose and intent but lacked the cutting edge and execution to make it tell as they became the latest side to fall to their unbeaten neighbours this season.
This Friday’s trip to Belfast poses similar problems potentially as Munster prepare to meet an Ulster side that has been successfully retooled over the past 18 months by Dan McFarland and is now reaping the rewards in both Europe and the PRO14.
Rowntree is at the start of a similar journey. While Larkham arrived from Australia in August, the former Leicester and England icon has only been in post since joining from Georgia’s World Cup campaign and has had to strike a balance between putting his mark on the Munster pack and respecting what has gone before, both under his predecessor Jerry Flannery and in pre-season.
“I think they’re in a good place. Big boots to fill in what Jerry was doing with the group but you want to have your stamp on it, which I’m quietly doing.
“It’s about getting them used to how I do things and how I operate. I’ve been into different environments before and that’s just an experience thing as to how and when you bring things in.
“You learn that with experience. You’ve got to sense what the group is like. It’s not like going into a Georgian pack of forwards where there’s a language and a cultural barrier. There’s not that here so it’s been easier in that regard but I’ve really enjoyed it. They’ve been very receptive so far.
You’ve got to walk before you can run with a group, get to know people, individuals, but still stick to your standards, your morals, so to speak. They’ve been good.
Coming off a World Cup campaign with Georgia, the 48-year-old, who also served as England forwards coach from 2007-15 and on two tours with the British & Irish Lions in 2013 and ’17, is enjoying life as a full-time club coach once again.
“Test rugby is different. I worked with England for a long time, you get pockets of time where you have got to maximise your exposure to those players but day in, day out you can drip-feed certain things and you have more exposure with players and you get to know more players.
“I do a lot of work with the young lads as well because we’ve got to get them through quickly. So I’m enjoying working with the young guys because we’ve got some cracking young players and the balance for us is when we bring them through. So I like the fact you can work with a big group of players on a daily basis.”
Rowntree has already witnessed the benefits of the slightly longer time enjoyed by former Wallabies fly-half Larkham.
“You can see what difference Steve has made in his area quite quickly but it is going to take time. Where are we now, I mean Steve’s been here since August, I’ve been here since November but it already feels like we’ve been here together longer. So, so far, so good, bar the disappointment of Saturday night.
“We don’t agree with each other all the time. I don’t think you’re meant to as a coaching group but we’ve got a good balance of characters and personalities there.
“Yeah, we have some good discussions. I actually think we’re making strides with this team but the more time we have the better.”