Anatomy of a Season 2019/20

Who and what stood out for Munster during the strangest season in living memory?

In a season like no other, in these unprecedented times… don’t worry, I’m not going to finish that sentence. I’m sick of plinky-plonky “we’re in this together” stuff and I’ll wager you are too. You already know this season has been crazy because the world has been crazy since the week of the Italian game. The 2019 World Cup happened during this season that’s just finished. For a bit of perspective, I’m publishing this article on the 10th of September 2020. On the 10th of September 2019, Ireland were just three days removed from a World Cup warm-up victory over Wales in the Aviva Stadium and I was preparing to go to Irish Independent Park for Munster’s first preseason game of the 2019/20 season against London Irish on the 13th of September 2019. That same season only ended for Munster on the 4th of September 2020, just 11 days short of a full year since our preseason kicked off on a chilly Autumn evening in Cork.

A lot has happened in the interim, to put it mildly. The tragedy of coronavirus, the deaths, the social isolation, the world we knew being changed in a way that we still kinda haven’t dealt with collectively – this is a different world to the one that we kicked off this season in.

From a rugby perspective, this has been a frustrating season filled with one catch 22 after another.

Stephen Larkham, our big senior coaching hire signed to improve our attacking work, arrived in Limerick in August 2019, just a few weeks before the PRO14 season kicked off. The majority of our senior players were in Japan for the initial part of Larkham’s tenure and they rejoined the squad in early November as blank slates to what had been going on in the HPC up until their return. They were greeted by our incoming forward coach, who joined the squad in late October. If Ireland had been knocked out of the pool stages instead of a two weeks later, a fair whack of the team that would lineout against Racing 92 in Thomond Park in late November might have been on the same flight home as Graham Rowntree.

Straight after five weeks of Champions Cup games that culminated with a mini-series of three games against Racing and Saracens – with a narrow home loss to Edinburgh would decide the PRO14 conference in between – we went into a Christmas InterPro series with heavy player management protocols over the three games. We won an important in-conference game against Connacht but then slipped to two poor losses against Leinster and Ulster (the Ulster game was particularly bad) before backing that up with a comprehensive loss in Paris that ended our European season with a game to spare.

We went unbeaten for the next four games and picked up four bonus-point wins along the way against Ospreys, Southern Kings, Zebre and the Scarlets and then the world locked down. Everything since the restart should be fresh in your memory – a narrow loss to Leinster, a weird bonus-point win over a headless, 13-man Connacht and then a dour loss to Leinster last Friday.

It feels like the season never really got going when I looked back at it.

There were really excellent performances – away against Cardiff, for example – alongside gritty, physical displays in terrible weather against Racing, Saracens and Scarlets. Equally, the all three losses to Leinster, the loss to Ulster and the defeat away to the Cheetahs featured some desperately low-quality stuff. The two away losses to Racing and Saracens were dispiriting in that they featured some of the classical size issues this squad has shown in big games to an opposition with a size advantage – something that still persists – but the context of the difficulty faced in going to La Defense/Allianz Park has to be acknowledged too. Those games showed a gap, yes, but one that had shrunk, albeit not by enough.

I’ve gone over every single week and every single teamsheet from a selection perspective. I can’t say that anything egregious stands out to me. A lot has been made about the young players that weren’t selected during the season but I understand why they would have been cycled out when they were. There were a lot of opportunities in the first five weeks of the season but the tight turnaround to three season-defining games against Racing and Saracens coupled with the return of a large group of Category 1 players from the World Cup three weeks before the first Heineken Cup game meant that those younger squads were sidelined in favour of generating cohesion between the Larkham plan and the test players who would try to implement it.

It ended up with a half-in-half style of game that saw Munster struggle to balance the performance aims of the season (European Cup progression and PRO14 conference standing) with the need for on-field cohesion with a new coaching group and a late returning core of test players that, for reasons of coaching cohesion, to have IRFU managed minutes frontloaded because of the Champions Cup schedule. Even then, Van Graan handed out steady minutes to the likes of Gavin Coombes, Jack O’Sullivan, Calvin Nash, Keynan Knox, Shane Daly, Diarmuid Barron and Craig Casey.

There seemed to be a clear aim to give equal minutes to the senior squad where possible depending on positional role requirements.

Nick McCarthy, Neil Cronin and Craig Casey racked up 294, 229 and 254 minutes respectively over the season with Craig Casey taking a clear lead as Murray’s alternate towards the tail end of the season pre-lockdown and in our selection after the restart. Alby Mathewson accumulated 263 minutes during his 8 appearances before his short term contract extension expired after the home game against Racing 92.

An argument could be made that a guy like Casey – who’s clearly a high potential young stand out – could have done with more on-field minutes rather than squarely splitting 1200 minutes with three other guys who are either solid squad players or veterans on short term deals but we had five senior scrumhalves at different times this season behind Conor Murray and all of them were given opportunities on-field.

Casey began to take primacy at the turn of the year, sure, but the rest of the scrumhalves could have no complaint on their minutes from a fairness perspective.

Arno Botha featured a lot for Munster in his last contract year at the club and I think that was mainly because he was an excellent ball carrier as a PRO14 regular. We didn’t have a whole lot of other guys who could regularly rack up 10+ quality ball carries even if guys like Coombes and O’Sullivan showed promise in their appearances.

Most of the other positions saw limited minutes for players in the depth chart below what was considered to be our starting incumbents in the middle stretch of the season post World Cup and before the Six Nations in almost every position. The six games Munster lost to the lockdown stole valuable development time for guys like Hodnett, the Coombes cousins, O’Sullivan, Healy, Casey, Nash, Daly and perhaps others who would have featured in the gradual push to the bigger regular-season games away to Edinburgh, the Scarlets and Leinster in a consistent weekly cycle of training and games with the returning internationals spending more time with the wider group and under Larkham post-Six Nations.

It was that segmented nature of the season that caused me the most frustration. The opening third of the season featured a poor result at altitude away to the Cheetahs but a whole series of really positive performances right up until the internationals came back. That sounds like “the internationals ruined everything” but I don’t mean it to, as they are our best players by the very fact that they were with the test squad in the first place. When they arrived back to the HPC it was to an evolved game plan from what they had been living and training for the previous three months on the build to Japan and what they had known with Munster under Felix Jones the year prior. The early part of the season saw Munster leaning heavily on Hanrahan and Bleyendaal – again, that’s no surprise given Larkham was in the job for six weeks and new coaches typically tend to need senior players to be more comfortable with the expanded attacking concept, especially when there’s a ticking clock to a lethal Champions Cup group. That pushed Healy’s possible minutes back.

The middle third of the season was a slog against consistently difficult opposition with little in the way of selection breathing room until the end of January.

Nothing sums this up like the home loss to Edinburgh that ultimately lead to a third consecutive second-place conference finish. The game took place smack-dab in the middle of a five-week Champions Cup bloc and in between the must-win crushingly physical home games against Racing 92 and Saracens. The side that had played the two previous Champions Cup games was cycled out – our minutes and an inexperienced, mostly Category 2 side was selected to face a full-strength Edinburgh who looked like they’d targeted this game from the start of the season.

It was a narrow enough 16-18 loss in the end. The one extra win that Edinburgh had that was the difference between their 51 points and our 51 points at the end of the season? That was this game.

That game highlighted a need for established depth in Munster’s second layer and that need is still there.

As an example, six of the matchday squad that featured in that Edinburgh game are no longer at the club. Those were the options available to Johann Van Graan at the time and the selection of senior, relatively experienced professionals with the idea that they would generate a result is a completely understandable decision for a coach to make. A coach has to look after the future with youth development but if he doesn’t look after the results week to week, he won’t be around to reap the rewards of his youth development. I think we’ve struggled to find that balance over the last two seasons and last season in particular.

Before a season kicks off, most coaching groups look at their fixture list and give them a rough grading of importance. This is what I mean by Category 1, 2 and 3 games and selections. A Category 3 game would, for example, be a game at home against the Southern Kings or to the Dragons during a test window. A game away to Zebre or at home against a Welsh franchise during the Six Nations or Autumn test window would be a Category 2 game. Any Champions Cup game or an unrestricted selection InterPro would be a Category 1 game and you can get games that fall in between 1 and 2 with certain games against Benetton, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Scarlets, Cardiff etc depending on their selection and the importance of the game. Category 3 and home Category 2 games are perfect for youth development, especially if you can layer your selection with Category 1 players.

Here would be an example selection, to give you an idea of how you’d work this for a Category 2 away game against the Cardiff Blues in the coming season.

15. Gallagher, 14. Nash, 13. Farrell, 12. De Allende, 11. Daly, 10. Healy, 9. Casey; 1. Wycherley, 2. Scannell, 3. Knox, 4. Wycherley, 5. Kleyn, 6. Coombes, 7. Hodnett, 8. Stander

16. Barron, 17. Kilcoyne, 18. Salanoa, 19. Ahern, 20. Beirne, 21. Murray, 22. Hanrahan, 23. Sweetnam

Here would be an example selection, to give you an idea of how you’d work this for a Category 3 home game against the Dragons during a test window* with a 6/2 bench split;

15. Flannery, 14. Keith Earls, 13. Alex McHenry, 12. Dan Goggin, 11. Coombes, 10. Hanrahan, 9. Casey; 1. O’Connor, 2. O’Byrne, 3. Salanoa, 4. Ahern, 5. Holland, 6. Wycherley, 7. Daly, 8. O’Sullivan

16. Marshall, 17. Wycherley, 18. Knox, 19. Kelly, 20. O’Donoghue, 21. Cronin, 22. Crowley, 23. Coombes

*For the sake of argument here I’ve left Keith Earls out of the Ireland squad as I feel it’s quite possible at this stage in his career and to highlight how that might benefit Munster. 

These two selections use a majority of Munster produced players, combine quality experience with youth in units or pairing off the bench. This kind of selection rotates out and minute manages senior players in a season where they’ll be asked to play an 8-team tournament plus two Six Nations games in November/December before another Six Nations campaign in the Spring. I chose to leave out O’Mahony and Conway in these two selections because… I could. They get some minutes away from the slog of the game and they’re ready to be launched fresh the week after. This kind of selection gives young guys ample opportunity for meaningful minutes and also gives the coaches a broad look at areas where players might scoot up the depth chart or where they might be unsuitable for further minutes.

I felt that when we went looking to blend youth with our test players during 2019/20 it was almost impossible to find the window to do so.

I’ve gone through the teamsheets and when you combine injuries, IRFU minute management, the relative difficulty of our That Edinburgh game was a Category 1.5 game because of the strength of their selection and the context of the game in our conference but because of the pressure of our schedule, we could only afford to field a Category 2 strength side, at best. Even then, we were close but poor enough individual senior players undermined the effort. They didn’t want to play badly but they were picked to be what they were and are – senior professionals at Munster Rugby – and the quality you’d associate with that description wasn’t there. That was a common failing and one that will need to be addressed with (a) improved performances or (b) a radical change in the depth chart.

For 2020/21, the academy and senior squad will be training together for the entire season because of the mountain of games awaiting the squad over the next year so opportunities for more youth development won’t just be nice, it’ll be absolutely vital. 2019/20 both pre and post lockdown told us more of what we already know – that we are close but not close enough and that if we are to improve it will be because of an injection of talent from the young players in our squad that are demanding minutes and opportunities.

This season was a greatest hits medley of our previous Big Defeats in knock-out games. Three games against Leinster. Two against Racing. Two against Saracens. One win. One draw. Five losses. We can talk about context – and I have – but at a certain point, you look at the results and think that something needs to happen. This upcoming season is both an opportunity for renewal and the last chance saloon for much of the team that broke out in the momentous 2016/17 season. If we’re still talking about being close but not close enough in July 2021, more radical change might be on the cards. If we’re talking about the same thing in 2022, there will be radical change.

I genuinely believe that if we can get Joey Carbery back fit alongside RG Snyman at some point before April 2020 and not lose any more key starters to long term injuries, Munster can win this season’s PRO14. If we can bring through five or six young players to the stage where they are regularly contending for Category 1 selection, I think this season’s development aims will have been met and I don’t think that is an outrageous demand.

This upcoming season will exist in a world that will be affected by COVID19 long after there is (hopefully) a vaccine. Whatever happens, we are going into a rugby world where contracts will be scarcer and more difficult to come by. Twenty-five members of the senior squad are off-contract at the end of the 2020/21 season. Will we be making space to reshape the squad going forward? Or will Larkham and Rowntree imprint enough to push everyone forward to where we need to be to break the glass ceiling?

Time will tell.

***

TRK Senior Player of the Season 2019/20: Andrew Conway
(Honourable mention: Dan Goggin, Kevin O’Byrne, CJ Stander)

TRK Young Player of the Season 2019/20: Craig Casey
(Honourable mention: Fineen Wycherley, Shane Daly, Gavin Coombes)

Breakout Moment of the Season 2019/20: John Hodnett’s Man of the Match debut against the Southern Kings
(Honourable mention: Tom Ahern’s try against Scotland, Jack Crowley’s U20 Six Nations, Craig Casey’s game against Connacht in December 2019)