The season of 2016/2017 can be defined into two distinct epochs. Before the morning of October 16th, 2016 and after.
The regular grind of game after game after game since that fateful Paris morning has distorted time to the point that it seems to have happened a lot longer ago than the nine short months it has been in reality. Has it only been that long? In much the same way that a city can fall away below the clouds as you take off to where you’re going, the non-stop emotional demands of professional rugby can take you away from life’s cruel realities. If rugby is war continued by other means, then it’s easy to see how the weekly battles can act as an anaesthetic to the cruel reality that Anthony Foley is gone.
Yet, we can almost focus too much on his loss, and its galvanising effect, and less so on the real technical advancements that he (in concert with Erasmus, Nienaber, Flannery and Jones) achieved before he passed away.
The truth is that Munster were building nicely before the Glasgow game of October 22nd that announced Munster’s return to the rugby world. The poor performance against Leinster in the Aviva Stadium two weeks before was – as usual – given way too much significance than it warranted. In that game, Munster looked hesitant and a little light up front. It’s what made the Glasgow game all the more shocking, but Munster fans who paid attention could see the progress coming in the weeks prior.
It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was building to peak for Paris and the Champions Cup. Paris didn’t happen, as we know, but it did for Glasgow a week later.
In the circumstances, it was one of the great days of Munster Rugby.
How could any day live up to October 22nd, 2016? Munster buried Anthony Foley the day before and, less than 24 hours after, would take the field to take on a Glasgow side that absolutely humbled Leicester the week before.
Can you imagine the pressure the Munster players would have been under? Can you imagine that sense of responsibility? No one would have begrudged them a loss, but can you imagine if they had? They did not want to the side that lost that game, on that day, and that’s a kind of pressure that few rugby players – ever – will ever face. The eyes of the rugby world on them and the price of failure being the worst thing of all – pity.
In some ways, that day was such an intense “beyond sport” occasion that I feel it almost sucked the air out of the “regular” sports pressure scenarios that came later in the season.
But as a standalone event, October 22nd, 2016 showed the character that this squad possessed and, in a lot of ways, reforged the connection between the fans and team that, if not broken, had become a little frayed in the previous four seasons. All of sudden, we knew who we were again. And that rediscovered identity would push Munster to old heights.
You need emotional intensity (among other things) to win any game of significance in rugby but it only takes you so far. You often hear about how Munster “out-emotioned” every opponent they faced in the aftermath of Anthony Foley’s death and it’s gained even more traction in the aftermath of the season’s end. I don’t think it’s accurate.
It takes away a lot of credit from a Munster side that were playing with rock-solid confidence, incredible set-piece accuracy and an outstanding defence that had few equals in European rugby over the course of the season. All of Munster’s big wins post-October (Glasgow, Leicester, Leinster, Racing 92, Connacht, Ospreys etc) were based on these core principles. Writing these off to “emotion” does both sides a disservice.
This is ultimately Foley’s legacy. Munster’s breakdown and set piece were the foundations on which this season was built, and that was Foley’s remit. Last year, I hypothesised that a stripped back role for Foley under Erasmus would benefit everyone, and that certainly proved to be true.
“When it comes to working with a pack, I’d say an Anthony Foley focused on just that aspect of the game would be top level.”
His influence was seen through here for most of the season, not just on October 22nd. Ultimately, this was a season defined by raised standards across the board and, as a result, has to be seen as a massive progression from last year.
It’s easy to look at the two biggest games of the season (Saracens and Scarlets) and see little progress, but to look at just 160 minutes of a 30+ game season is reductive to the point of absurdity.
By almost every metric you could wish to measure, Munster are at five-year highs.
Half Foley / Half Erasmus
Half Foley / Half Penney
Half Penney / Half McGahan
In the last five years, this season saw the lowest points conceded, most points scored, most tries scored, biggest points difference and the highest finishing Pro12 position since 2011, when we last won the league.
If that’s not progression, I don’t know what is.
In the aftermath of the Saracens and Scarlets game, all you heard was the problems with Munster’s attack and attack coaching. Everything from Tyler Bleyendaal to Felix Jones’ inexperience was touted as the cause for this apparent failure. Yet the stats over the whole season don’t back this up. Munster had the second highest number of tries scored in the Pro12 (77) and the third highest number of try bonus points (9).
Were we well coached in attack all year but coached by someone else the week of the Saracens and Scarlets games? Of course not. But this point, in answering one question, raises another.
This season’s undoubted progress brought with it a few uncomfortable end of season performances in knockout games. Two games in the Aviva Stadium saw two humbling losses and it’s only natural to wonder why they happened.
The Saracen’s loss, in one way, is easier to take in that it was against the undoubted best team in Europe at the peak of their season. The Scarlets performance – less so. But the fact remains that both this knockout games produced season-low performances that didn’t reflect our work in earlier games against a similar standard of opposition. What happened?
In my mind, it was a combination of mental fatigue, poor handling of pressure situations and then, to a lesser extent, personnel issues.
Did the pressure and mental toll of an unprecedented year catch up with Munster in these games? I really do think so. We certainly didn’t play like we had done in other games. Saracens didn’t really let us play our game at all but the Scarlets game just looked like a Munster side running on empty both physically and emotionally. The last time I saw Munster that flat and leaderless during a game was the season before, and it just looked like a game too far from a mental standpoint.
Munster didn’t play like they were coached all season, that’s for sure, and if anything they looked a little undercooked mentally, rather than wound up to the point of cracking under the pressure. We were flat and leaderless in some regards.
Let’s not pretend that injuries and fatigue didn’t play their part either. Losing Murray for a number of weeks was a massive blow, as was losing both Jean Kleyn and Dave Foley for the season. Kleyn was a massive loss.
Kleyn’s brute force physicality was badly missed against Saracens in particular and it’s no surprise that Munster won all but one of the 13 games that Kleyn featured in, and the one loss in that sequence came in the last minute against Tigers.
He’s vitally important for next season.
Add in CJ Stander’s ankle injury robbing him of much of his usual “pop” and a few others running on fumes come the last few weeks of the year (Rory Scannell, Jaco Taute, Tommy O’Donnell and Dave Kilcoyne spring to mind) and you get a picture of why Munster’s season tailed off in the knockouts.
At our best, we were unstoppable – look at the 8 game stretch around December and January to see just how good we were, especially those 3 European games on the bounce. It has been a season of great strides but a few more strides yet to take.
There’s an element of running before we could walk about the end of this season, but that comes when you make the strides Munster have in such a small period of time. Last season we finished sixth in the Pro12 and just twelve months later we finished first – a whole 23 points better off. That is an outstanding turnaround before you even get into the European level improvement.
But with that turnaround, comes a feeling that we ran ahead of our squad’s capability to challenge for the positions that we won on merit.
Ultimately, are Munster a top 4 in Europe level squad?
I mean, we were in a Champions Cup semi-final, so technically we are in the top 4, but I don’t we’re there yet as far as squad depth goes.
It’s like this – if you’re going to play 30+ games a year you need a level of depth that only a few teams can manage (22 regular season Pro12 games + 2 Pro12 playoff games + 6 ECC games + at least 1 ECC knockout game) and that’s before you include the game 7/8 test games your international players will also have on their workload.
When you look at how many minutes top guys like Tyler Bleyendaal, Billy Holland, John Ryan, Rory Scannell, Tommy O’Donnell and Jaco Taute played, never mind the internationals, you get a picture of why Munster started to look “flatter” as the season came to an end.
The addition of Chris Farrell, JJ Hanrahan, James Hart and the other incoming signings will spread the workload around, as will the growing influence of academy products like Oliver, Scott, Wycherley, Goggin, Wootton and others.
If we can keep Jean Kleyn fit for most of the season, replace Donnacha Ryan with someone of similar/better physical properties and bring in some tighthead cover, I think we’ll be stronger next season than we have been in quite some time.
Munster are closer to where we need to be to be considered realistic challengers at the top end of both the Pro12 and Europe compared to any point in the last 5 years. In Erasmus, Nienaber, Flannery and Jones, I think we have a very strong coaching core to make the next steps forward.
We talk about our apparent need to evolve in attack but I think this is mainly a process of integrating the incoming options in our backline and finding the best ways to utilise them in a gameplan that isn’t all too different from the one that brought us so much success this season.
The most important thing is to build on the standards, attitude and identity that Munster set and rediscovered during this tumultuous season. Do that, and there’s nowhere we can’t go and no one we can’t beat.
This season, Munster remembered who they were and for a while, Europe shook. The path is set once again. On we go.