The criticism raining down on Munster Rugby of late has been unrelenting, but is it fair?
Those within the set-up dismiss it as “outside noise”, but it hasn’t stopped, even after back-to-back wins over Ulster and at Castres last weekend — a victory that secured qualification for the Heineken Champions Cup knockout stages a week ahead of schedule.
Sport this week sought the opinion of a former player from each of the last four decades.
The former hooker, now coaching in the AIL at Garryowen, was a member of the last Munster team to win silverware in 2011 and played under Johann van Graan before injury forced his retirement in 2019.
Now a chartered physiotherapist with his own practice in Limerick, Dowling won an AIL winners medal with Shannon and two Heineken Cups on Munster’s left wing in 2006 and 2008 before injury cut short his career in 2011.
A member of the last generation of amateurs to represent Munster, the lock/flanker played Heineken Cup rugby in Munster’s 1996/97 campaign, spent time as Munster U20s manager and became a familiar voice on Limerick 95fm, co-commentating on Munster matches alongside his father, Len Sr.
Goal-kicker Haly played full-back and scored 11 points in the Munster team that beat Australia at Musgrave Park in 1992. A former Oxford rugby Blue, he is a dentist in Cork and currently chairman of rugby at AIL 1A’s UCC RFC.
“If you’re looking at the last three or four games, you’d have to say Munster aren’t a good watch, but they are viewed very harshly at times, and if you’re playing the way they’re playing at the minute, it just gives people another stick to beat you with.
“They’re still coming up with victories, but it would be nice to see them spread the ball, it would be nice to see them get to the touchlines and show a little bit of ingenuity. Yes, box-kicking and exit strategies have a massive part to play in rugby, but they can play, they can spread the ball. They’ve shown at times in the last couple of years they can be a good attacking side … but they just may be in a bit of a rut in terms of what they’re trying to do. Their tactics seem to be a little short-sighted in getting a win at all costs, it’s just a bit of a vicious cycle they’re in at the minute, and it’s hard to put your finger on what exactly they need to do to break out of it and make people happy.”
“The brand of rugby they’re playing is a disgrace, it’s tough to watch. OK, they’re winning and they beat Castres away, which is always a good thing, but bar some incredible individual performances like Tadhg Beirne’s penalty turnover that led to that try from Gavin Coombes — bar that, I don’t think Munster would have won.”
“I do enjoy watching them. They played better rugby at the start of the season but they’ve gone back since the South African debacle. It’s hard to get your head around first-choice selection because of all the rotation, and sometimes they don’t pick the best team. I understand he has to rotate a few, but you always pick the best team for your big matches, and I look at Munster and I sometimes wonder what is his best team now? It’s maybe why they’re not playing as well as they were. I’d like to see more consistent selection, but that win in Castres was a great result, and maybe we’ve lost perspective a little bit around that.”
With this current crop of young local talent, it’s exciting what’s coming through, but we’ve gone through cycle after cycle of coaching going back to Rob Penney, and you ask yourself: ‘What’s Munster’s identity?’. Rassie Erasmus ticked all the boxes for me, and maybe laid the foundations for this team. Those foundations were so good at that time in terms of set-piece to rucks to defence, and you would have liked to have seen the game progress from there, not going to kicking, kicking, kicking — but a willingness to open up.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing for this current crop that van Graan is moving on … there’s no sense of identity with the team or their style of play, it’s very prescriptive.”
“All the players need to be able to express themselves. When guys like Conway and Earls are let loose, they’re incredible, and I wouldn’t think they have too much fear of making mistakes; but the guys coming in, I think the shackles are on a lot of them. That’s because they only get 20 minutes of a cameo, like, 20 minutes to prove you’re the best player on the pitch and ‘don’t make a mistake’. That’s what I hear a lot of, ‘don’t make a mistake’. With that attitude, you’re never going to have a cut off them, you’ll never really express yourself to take on that pass, that sidestep, or beat a guy on the outside. You’re going to go for the inside shoulder and set up the ruck.
“With this current crop that’s coming through, there seems to be something relatable with the likes of Gavin Coombes, John Hodnett, Craig Casey, Jack Crowley, Ben Healy, Alex Kendellen, and Thomas Ahern as well. But this group of players seem to need a bit more direction if they are to kick on.
“There’s a great buzz when homegrown talent takes to the pitch, so it’s about getting the right structures in place and then trying to put them on the correct path that will give us the best chance of success.
“Ian Costello [academy manager] and Colm McMahon [head of rugby development] are two key appointments in supporting the development pathways, getting the players in, and helping them develop to perform at senior level.
“But there are great challenges before they even get to Munster. You look at the great work Limerick GAA have done at underage and with their development path, and in Cork, Christians seem to have a strong Harty Cup team. These are typical rugby strongholds, and where a lot of the player talent is going to come from. So we need to get more Gavin Coombes through earlier and quicker so they’re ready for the step up to the senior game. You look at Leinster, and they’re starting their professional development at a younger age, their training age is a lot earlier, even from a strength and conditioning point of view.
“And you see it in Limerick GAA, the players on their development panels, so these are obvious challenges for Munster to get access to those players through the schools. It’s one of the foundation blocks for me, facilitating that good work.”
“They’ve turned their back on the club game and the win at Wasps last month just shows you, where would Munster have been if the AIL wasn’t where it is, with eight or nine kids coming through having played week to week in the AIL? They’ve tended to put kids in cotton wool in the academy… but if Pa Campbell the young full-back wasn’t playing for the Cookies every week, they’d have nothing.
“The AIL needs to be engaged and play a bigger role in the future, because the pro game needs the amateur game and vice versa if these Munster kids are going to develop. So release them from the academy if they’re not involved for the senior team, let them train with their club on a Thursday night and play with them on a Saturday.
“Hopefully that Wasps game was a watershed moment in that regard.”
It will be tough for them. They’re a fabulous group of lads that if things went for them, a little bit of luck, no injuries … it would be a tall order. Leinster and Toulouse are unbelievable, but look, only one or two small things can make a difference at that level, so with a bit of luck. I think they are at that level, probably in the top five. Everyone fears Munster.
“We could do with a Paul O’Connell, and it’s such a pity Snyman has been injured, I wonder if he was there would that have been the X-Factor that we needed. Tadhg Beirne and Peter O’Mahony are playing fantastically well, but I think van Graan has been very unlucky in that respect.
I have every faith it could come this year, but we need to see green shoots in attack. The scars are there, the learnings are there, ultimately it’s whether they can compete with the likes of Leinster, Toulouse, and Harlequins, teams who are likely going to be waiting for them in the semi-finals and finals. There’s no escaping that. The frustration with Munster with the style of rugby they’re playing is that while it beats 80% of teams in Europe and the league, it doesn’t seem to be enough to beat the bigger teams. Whether they have it in them to develop that or whether it’s there and they’re just not showing it I can’t answer, but they do have to come up with something different.
We’re eternal optimists, but it would be blind optimism to say that this year there’s a hope of silverware on the horizon. The URC is an unknown quantity in terms of how its going to play out this season and in Europe, Wasps on Sunday, and hopefully scrape a home quarter-final, you’d bank on Munster getting to a semi-final, you never know, but I don’t think silverware this year. The likes of Leinster and Toulouse, they’re too strong.
I always viewed Munster as a destination for coaches and players, and you’d start to question that now and start asking why are we getting such a high turnover in our staff? We’ve van Graan, JP Ferreira, Larkham all leaving now; it was Felix [Jones] and Jerry [Flannery] moving on before that, and we need to look at long-term succession planning.
“We need to ask how do we prevent this scenario from happening again? It could be a great time to pause and reflect, and think about the direction we’re going. You want to see that long-term strategy because at the minute it just seems very reactive that Munster keep finding themselves here.
“So it’s all about getting the right director of rugby and the right coaches around them so we’re not turning around in two years and looking again.
“Deccie was a great man-manager … and with this young crop of players, he could be a great fit if he gets the right coaching staff with him. The incoming coaches need to be progressive, to challenge the young players and help them develop along with the style in which Munster are going to play.”
“I don’t agree with the calls for Johann to leave right now. It would be too unsettling, and wouldn’t benefit Munster in terms of going for a trophy.
“It’s brilliant that Graham Rowntree has signed on … the continuity of having him on board is really positive and for young players — he can be a legacy coach to build a rapport with.
“Declan Kidney would be a very good natural fit, having done a really good job with London Irish.
“It was good to see him get out of the Irish system and see that his way of doing things — his fatherly overseeing kind of nature — translated well to a different culture and environment. He knows Munster inside out. He would be a great addition.
“Deccie is fantastic. You look at what he’s done with London Irish. He’s so good at the man-management side, and understands that so well.
“He always went with Les Kiss, who is a fantastic coach as well, and I wonder if that would be a good package to come back.
“So you could have Rowntree, Prendergast, and Kiss under Deccie. That would be quite a nice package wouldn’t it?”