For all the pessimism from outside the Munster camp regarding the province’s ability to contend for silverware in the near future, Stephen Larkham feels belief is growing within the squad that good times lie just around the corner.
Back-to-back wins over Ulster, at home but with 14 men for 65 minutes, and Castres away in France to secure qualification for the knockout rounds of the Heineken Champions Cup may have raised spirits among most supporters and the playing group following a couple of performances deemed below standard against Castres at home and Connacht away, yet the criticisms of Munster’s playing style have continued unabated.
As preparations ramped up for Sunday’s visit of Wasps to Thomond Park for a fourth and final pool game in which Munster could secure an advantageous home second leg in April’s round of 16, the senior coach said such gripes against playing style were misinformed and that his team’s attack possessed a well-balanced variety. As for whether he believed it was enough to make Munster genuine contenders in the Champions Cup this season, Larkham said: “It’s a pretty large question."
"There’s a lot of confidence and belief in the team at the moment. We feel that we’re doing some good stuff behind the scenes. Maybe it’s not transferring onto the field in terms of pictures but there’s a real strong belief in the team at the moment. I think that carries a lot of weight, particularly when you get to the back end of competitions.”
This is not to suggest Larkham believes everything in the Munster garden is rosy and he accepted recent performances in the home victory over Castres and the January 1 loss at Connacht were not good enough.
“We have had a couple of disappointing games and we just want to make sure we are more consistent with those games. Some of those were taken out of our control with the refereeing decisions, with the weather, with the way the game had panned out. Look at Connacht, we never got an opportunity to hold the ball, it was just one of those games where they controlled territory exceptionally well and we never got to hold onto the ball for significant passages of play. But that was an anomaly, if you look at the other games.
“I think with Connacht, we passed the ball 11 times outside of our 9 and 10, we passed the ball 11 times and our average is about 30 to 40 times, which is pretty bang on just about every game in the competition. But that was an anomaly, Connacht, so for us, it would be about chasing consistency and making sure we are playing our best game every weekend.
“So, basically, the next game we play we want it to be our best game. We are constantly working on evolving, evolving our attack, evolving our defence, evolving our kicking game, all of that sort of stuff, evolving as the season goes on. We just want to make sure we are consistently putting our performance out there.” The Australian refuted the specific criticism of an overreliance on tactical kicking.
“You've got to be realistic when you look at our game. We’re not the team that kicks the most in our games. I know we’ve been criticised for kicking too much in the past but the stats just don't add up.
“We feel we've got a very balanced game, we play the game we want to play. We feel that when there is an opportunity on the table we’re going to take those opportunities. I think we've got a very sound game and we’ve been improving… We're looking for improvement every week.
“There’s certain elements in some weeks, the game doesn't come together because of the conditions or the referee of different circumstances but we certainly have enough variety in our game… when you talk generally that we haven’t got the best game, I think it's misinformed.”