Munster finished the 2010/2011 season as league champions, scored another famous victory over an International side and made it to a semi-final of a European Competition, why then, are many fans questioning where Tony McGahan is leading Munster rugby? The problem with aspiring to be the top side in Europe is that good enough seasons are no longer good enough. All but a handful of teams dream of the season Munster enjoyed but there's a significant few who've overtaken Munster where it counts, in HEC rugby. HEC rugby is how Munster have defined themselves in the professional era.. To not get out of our group for the first time in 13 seasons was a failure, a serious, systemic failure that can't be abrogated by winning against Australia and the League triumph. To lose to Harlequins in Thomond Park was another massive failure and these failures will be how the season is remembered. Why and how has this occurred, can Munster learn from last season and is McGahan able to lead us back to the top of European rugby?
Munster's league form last year was the sign of a great side, if stats determined these things. No poor side wins a league, beating the previous Champions, the Ospreys, in the semi-final and the HEC Champions, Leinster, in the league final. Munster lost three league games, two of these games we played with weakened sides. We haven't lost at Fortress Musgrave since 2008 and extended that record by going unbeaten in Thomond in the league, recording two memorable victories over Leinster to end a 4 match losing streak in the league.
Even more impressively, we won the league while bringing through a significant number of young players, while Murray, Jones and Nagle were probably the star finds of the season, players like Sherry, O'Mahony, Barnes and Zebo can be happy with how their own seasons went. O'Mahony in particular looked certain to break into the pack until a neck injury in December curtailed his Munster season while Sherry entered the season as fourth choice hooker and ended it challenging Varley to start. Nagle's form got recognition from Irish selectors, winning his first Ireland A cap against Scotland, while Jones and Murray are fighting it out to make in into the RWC squad, Jones completing a season destroyed by another serious injury with an Irish cap. We were the "winningest" side last year across the leagues in Europe and yet, the season is rightly regarded as amongst the worst since 2000.
So why were Munster so poor in Europe? It's one thing to lose to great European sides, or even sides like Toulon who have the players and potential to be a great European side, but the losses away to London Irish and the Ospreys and at home to Harlequins were bereft of any silver lining. We lost to teams that were having ordinary seasons and went on to have ordinary seasons. The Ospreys stumbled into the league play-offs, London Irish and Harlequins finished solidly mid-table in the Aviva Premiership. Why then, the disparity between what we managed in the league and in Europe? It was our consistency in beating ordinary league teams that primed us to win the league. Of our three league losses, two were by one score and the one that wasn't (Dragons away) was at the tail-end of three games in 11 days spell. By comparison, the losses in Toulon, Swansea and Reading were the result of abject performances. We were out-thought and out-fought.
It isn't easy to pick out the difference between league and European rugby. As well as generally coming up against full strength sides in all the European games, there are the intangibles that come with bigger games. Each game is a must win and under McGahan Munster have been poor at fully perfoming in must win games, something only bucked at the end of the season. Two of the European games we did win under massive pressure, the games at home to London Irish and away to Brive featured large swings in the period where traditionally we closed out games. All the great cup teams can find an extra gear in knock-out games, under McGahan we are far more consistent across the entire season but unable to raise ourselves for individual matches. Curiously, the Munster International games, with second team players, had no such problems.
If McGahan can solve this conundrum Munster will have some chance of returning to the top tier in Europe. For all the good he has achieved with Munster, rebuilding the squad, bringing in players from the AIL, redeveloping the Academy and adding high profile International games to Munster's record, McGahan knows he will be judged virtually solely on how Munster perform in Europe this season.
The signing of Botha, and the promotion of Foley to forwards coach must give some hint as to where the management feel the issues lie. Certainly, our scrum was poor for much of the season and Botha brings with him not just the ability to shore up our scrum, he has shown the ability to mentor Ulster's young props, a quality Munster have arguably lacked in the professional era. Foley's rise as a coach has been meteoric, from Munster A coach to defense coach last season. In each role he's excelled, getting Munster A to the British and Irish Cup final in 2010 and making Munster's defence one of the tightest in the ML in 2010/2011. His new role could be career defining. Munster's pack needs a radical overhaul over the coming seasons. Players like Horan, Flannery, Hayes and Wallace are approaching retirement and Foley's immediate task will have to be to identify their replacements. He is also tasked with returning the aggression to Munster's forwards. Notably against Leinster Munster showed far more aggression than in games against European opposition. While Fisher is credited with being a superb technical coach, the sight of Munster conceding the breakdown in too many European games was unnerving to any fan who'd watched Munster's rise from pre-2000 onwards.
Do Munster still have the forwards needed to be a dominant team in Europe, and are players coming through to replace legends like Hayes and Quinlan? Munster seem to have abandoned the previous policy of turning backrowers into props, and have instead recruited several AIL props into the senior squad. This, along with Botha's signing is another tacit acknowledge from Munster that serious changes need to be made. While we're well stocked with secondrowers, the decline of Munster's backrow has arguably been the greatest reversal of strength in McGahan's tenure. Tellingly since Wallace won the Senior Club with Crescent in 1994 no Limerick backrower has come through either clubs or schools system to establish himself at Munster. It is clearly a problem that pre-dates the current management but one they need to solve. The pressure is on young players like O'Mahony and O'Donnell to replace Quinlan and to re-establish Munster's backrow, particularly as Munster may start the season without Leamy, Wallace, and Ryan in the backrow. It is absolutely vital that one of the young prospects seizes the opportunity the RWC spell affords. It is also absolutely vital that any young player who wins his place on merit in the absence of the International players is allowed fight for it when the Internationals return.
In the backs, the signing of Keatley could be a masterstroke if he can add consistency to his game, he has the full range of skills needed to make it as an International outhalf and will be eager to replace O'Gara in Munster and Irish squads. Apart from Keatley, Munster have looked to promote backs from within, with expectations that this will be the season where Danny Barnes and Simon Zebo become first team regulars. It's unclear if Munster are going to add another centre to the roster, though Dineen and Hanrahan will be looking to show Munster don't need to add another first centre to the squad. Felix Jones' stellar form in his comeback from neck and knee injuries led to him winning his first Ireland cap against Scotland. With a full preseason behind him, the prospect of a Howlett, Earls and Jones back three suddenly gives Munster a real attacking edge.
Munster's HEC group is, as usual, formidable. Last year's finalists, the Saints, Castres and the Scarlets. For the first time in an age, we finish the group away to an English side, no last minute heroics at Thomond this time out. McGahan and Munster will be judged on these six games. Munster's priorities for next season have to be to both rebuild the backrow and to escape the HEC group. There will always be an element of luck when the knock-out stages come around, should we make it there but right now, there are 6 games of paramount importance to Munster. The interpro games and the league are of secondary importance. We've won the consolation prize in two of the last three seasons and found it to be of no consolation. While we do not need to win the HEC, we need to show some tangible signs that the decline has been reversed, the ghosts of last season's HEC campaign will only be exorcised when Munster break back into the top level of European rugby, right now, nothing else matters.