Sunday's game in La Défense Arena was a lot closer than the 39-22 scoreline suggests. Munster, as always, gave everything they had but in the end it was Racing’s strength in depth and quality that shone through.
Unfortunately for Munster it’s a case of déjà vu over the last three seasons, the only difference being the stage of the competition at which they exit Europe. Four head coaches in the last seven seasons tells its own tale and the lack of continuity in playing style, squad management, and player development is coming home to roost.
In recent seasons Munster over-achieved without ever really being capable of winning tournaments and the need for change was recognised. Castigating the coaches or squad at this point in the transition is wrong and any calls for van Graan to go merely show a lack of understanding of the overall situation and the fundamental change required to bring silverware back to Munster.
It seems that finally the academy system, which had gone through so many barren years, is producing a pool of talent that will force itself into the senior squad.
Exciting young players like Craig Casey, Josh and Fineen Wycherley, Keynan Knox, Shane Daly, Jack O’Sullivan, Jake Flannery, Ben Healy, and others, need time to develop and the coaching team need the time to work with the players to ensure the new ideas are implemented correctly.
Stability within the coaching team and playing style for the next 18 months will be crucial and there are key metrics that Munster can use to measure progress.
1. Eight or more players who are regular internationals
The elite sides in the Champions Cup all have at least eight players in their matchday squad who are regular international starters. Under Joe Schmidt, Munster had four players who, when fit, made the starting XV on a constant basis — Earls, Murray, O’Mahony, and Stander. The change of head coach at national level and the age profile of the Munster players in question mean that over the next 18 months, all four may not continue to be guaranteed regular starters.
Munster will need some of the current Ireland fringe players — such as Dave Kilcoyne, John Ryan, Niall Scannell, Jean Kleyn, Tadgh Beirne, Joey Carbery, Chris Farrell, and Andrew Conway — to step up and earn those guaranteed spots in the green jersey.
Munster will also be able to boost this category in the short term with the arrival of Damian de Allende and RG Snyman in the summer. It’s not inconceivable that Munster could have eight or more regular internationals (six Irish, two South African) but it would require several fringe players to stay fit and to push past provincial challengers to claim their green jerseys.
2. Six or more dynamic heavy carriers
Rugby is not a contact sport, it’s a collision sport — and size does matter. The more players you have who can win the collisions and the gainline battle, the better chance you have of success. Munster under Rassie Erasmus, Ireland under Schmidt, and Leinster under Leo Cullen all used the same style of dynamic heavy carriers who either ran over tacklers or created space for others by sucking in defenders.
A dynamic heavy carrier is a player that can take slow, static ruck ball and through a mixture of power, speed, and footwork, go forward despite a wall of defenders lined up. Not only that but if you can put these players on the front foot with defences unable to reset in time, they will give you territory and space elsewhere to attack. While Leinster can call on the likes of Healy, Furlong, Porter, Ryan, Leavy, Henshaw, and Lowe, Munster are reliant on three key players: Kilcoyne, Stander, and Farrell.
When facing the very top teams under Erasmus, Munster fell short because they didn’t have enough of these dynamic heavy carriers to rotate during phased play and defences could easily identify where the next attack was going to come from and stem it at source.
Again the addition of de Allende and Snyman is a readymade and quick solution to this problem but Munster need to develop more heavy carriers within the squad and hope that the likes of Keynan Knox, Gavin Coombes, and Jack O’Sullivan can break into the team and offer additional threats to opposition defences with ball in hand.
3. A forward pack that offers multiple threats
Looking at the Rugby World Cup and the Champions Cup, the old adage that forwards win matches and backs decide by how much seems to be still very much relevant in today’s game. Munster need to be able to piece together a pack that offers multiple heavy carriers, creates a solid set-piece platform for both lineout and scrum, and dominates the breakdown with and without the ball.
By adding Snyman and developing Knox, Munster can add further heavy carriers and enhance their set piece. A move to the back row for Tadgh Beirne might be on the cards but as the back row needs to contain the right balance of wide and heavy carrier, lineout options and breakdown specialist, I’m not sure if he and Peter O’Mahony can be accommodated in the same starting XV against the elite teams.
Munster need Jack O’Donoghue to continue his good run of form and starting pushing for international honours or for the likes of Jack O’Sullivan and Gavin Coombes to force themselves and their ball-carrying into the matchday 23.
While there is a focus on winning collisions, the need for invention in attack and accuracy is every bit as important. The opening 20 minutes in Paris showed what Munster were capable of: They went through multiple phased attacks, rotated their heavy carriers effectively, and were clinical in both their handling and clearouts. But as the game wore on, the lack of strength in depth took its toll. They still lack that spark of magic but with additional heavy carriers, theoretically it should create more space for the likes of Earls, Conway, Carbery, and Hanrahan to put teams to the sword.
A midfield of de Allende and Farrell offers a lot of bosh but certainly wouldn’t be one-dimensional. Both are adept passing the ball and it will be their ability to fix defenders to create space for the Munster back three and wide pods that can add another level to the attack. That centre pairing may also force Larkham to move his preferred second pivot from inside centre to full back which could mean seeing Carbery and Hanrahan playing interchangeably at 10 and 15.
The success that came in the Pro14 games in the early part of the season was with players who worked with Larkham over a long pre-season period and had time to adapt. Munster’s new style is challenging players’ skill-sets and instead of looking for contact, players are being asked to look for space and improve their handling, passing, decision making, and offloading.
Significant changes like this take time and the issue for Munster is that due to the turnover in coaching personnel and so many players missing large chunks of the season with the Rugby World Cup and IRFU Player Welfare Programme, they haven’t had the required time to work with their first-choice players to get them comfortable enough to implement the plan in a fully cohesive manner. This squad needs time to develop and the end of next season is the true time to judge Johann van Graan and his team.