Munster need not look far for an insight to the size of the task they face against Wasps this weekend — Ian Costello spent three seasons helping to define what makes Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup opponents tick.
Much of the focus of the Reds’ preparedness for the trip to Coventry has understandably been on the personnel they will be able to call on for the opening pool game after the upheaval caused by their aborted trip to South Africa, the subsequent Covid-19 outbreak in the travelling party splintering the playing squad into three groups.
As has been documented at length, 14 members of the organisation are self-isolating in a Cape Town hotel, some of them with mild symptoms of the dreaded virus, and there is another group of players and staff members, including head coach Johann van Graan, who arrived home and are currently in quarantine at home or in hotels in Ireland, perhaps until the weekend.
This left Costello, who left Wasps during the summer to return to Munster as head of the academy, in charge of the third group back in Limerick, preparing the players who missed the trip, including a contingent of frontline internationals that had been taking time off following the November Tests.
Munster will not have played in seven weeks due to the Test window and the postponement of those two games in Pretoria and Johannesburg but they will face a side with just three wins in nine Premiership games this season, a record which leaves Lee Blackett’s side in ninth place after a couple of narrow back-to-back league defeats since the Autumn Nations Series.
Scorelines of 33-35 at home to Gloucester on November 26 and 32-31 away at Worcester last Saturday suggest some straying from the defensive mantras espoused by Costello when he spoke to the Irish Examiner 14 months ago ahead of their 2019-20 Premiership final appearance against Exeter Chiefs.
Yet it would be dangerous to assume that the players coached by the Irishman until last June have been deprogrammed from the mindset he instilled in them over three campaigns.
Here is Costello speaking to this newspaper in October 2020, after Blackett had assumed command from Dai Young and turned Wasps fortunes around.
“Our overriding philosophy is desperation to get the ball back. What kind of defence coach do I want to be? I want to be excited by the way we play, I want us to be aggressive about getting the ball back and we just look right across the pitch at how many different ways to get the ball back.
“Yes, you’ve got Jack Willis who is the main threat, definitely, but counter-rucking, reefs, and tackles, attacking at source, at the moment we’re averaging about 15 turnovers a game and if Wasps get 15 turnovers and five or six are in good positions that gives us a good opportunity to convert that into scores.
“So yeah, basically, we’re good at nicking ball. That’s what drives us, that’s our identity and that’s where we want to play.”
Wasps will be without the aforementioned Willis, whose stellar rise to England Test selection was checked by the horrific knee injury he sustained against Italy in last season’s Six Nations but back then Costello was also keen to underline the reasons his club were so good at regaining the ball.
“I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the overall mood of your squad, the confidence, attitude, and belief in your squad underpins everything, so when you’ve got a good environment and players that are happy, that work hard, and are rewarded for working hard, I think that’s reflected in their performances on the pitch.
“Since Lee Blackett has taken over as head coach, he’s driven a huge amount of those things and at the moment it’s a very happy, very positive environment and we’ve a core group of leaders that really drive that and some of those leaders are in our defensive group. Jack Willis and Brad Shields are two of the main leaders in our D group and put Thomas Young in that and you’ve got a back row that leads from the front.
“Jack gets a lot of the credit but you look at that back-row as a unit, his brother Tom included, those guys are at the forefront of our physicality and the way we play and Jack is one of probably half a dozen key drivers within our squad.
“That’s where we’re lucky, we’ve finally got some good leadership with another layer coming underneath so if guys are away there’s others that can come in and step up to the plate.”
Munster may have enough on their plate to keep themselves looking inward in the build-up to Sunday’s game but Costello will ensure they are only too aware of the threats lurking in this Wasps side.