In last season’s Anatomy article, I posited the following question in the aftermath of the season – are Munster a top four in Europe level side?

At the time, I thought the answer to that question was a qualified “not quite yet”. This year, I feel fairly confident in saying that Munster are a solid top four side but find themselves in need of a few extra components to break that glass ceiling and go from beaten semi-finalists to possible champions.

But before I get to that, we’ve got to go back to June 30th, 2017, when Rassie Erasmus confirmed that he and Jacques Nienaber would be leaving Munster at some point during the 2017/2018 season to take up a role with the South African rugby union.

It seems like a different era, doesn’t it?

As preparation for the season goes – it was announced the day before the squad were due back in pre-season training – it was about as far from optimal as you could hope for. To lose 50% of your coaching group during a season already in motion would be a disruptive element for any side, let alone a side that has silverware ambitions but in July there was very little to be done about it. Munster would be starting the season with Rassie and Jacques and finishing it with people that we didn’t yet know.

It was a situation that was barely tolerable but in the circumstances, there was little else that could be done but to bare it, push on and make it work as best as possible. To pretend that such a move didn’t have a massive effect on Munster’s season would be to try and convince you that changing the pilot and first officer of a 747 during in mid-air is something that is normal and not potentially catastrophic. For Munster to finish the season as a top four in Europe side is a credit to the playing staff, the coaching group and, it must be said, Johann Van Graan and JP Ferreira.

To come into a circumstance that no club would ever willingly subject themselves to and still be there or thereabouts at the end of the season is an achievement in itself because coaching changes, in general, do not lead to success. In rugby, trophies are usually won by settled teams operating under the set guidance of a settled coaching group for multiple seasons.

The very best clubs in Europe have set management sides in place for extended periods of time. This is Leinster’s third season under Cullen and second under Lancaster. Connacht won the PRO12 in Pat Lam’s third year in charge. The Scarlets have been under Wayne Pivac’s coaching since 2014 and won the PRO12 in his third season. Rob Baxter has been at Exeter since 2009. Newcastle Falcons are beginning to push into contention for English honours and Champions Cup qualification in Dean Ryan’s sixth year as Director of Rugby. Racing 92 have had Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit in situ since 2013/2014. Mark McCall has been Saracens Director of Rugby since 2012.

You can have other coaching comings and goings, but having the right guy in charge for an extended period of time is usually associated with winning trophies.

Since 2012, Munster have had four top-level coaching changes. It seems like an inbuilt excuse but every person qualified to run a professional rugby team at the elite level has a different way they want to approach the game. Rob Penney and Rassie Erasmus are about as different in approach as you could possibly hope to get but they only have two years of playing time between them.

Whatever happens next, continuity is key. If Munster are to build on the encouraging signs of this season and move beyond the disappointments, consistency in coaching approach is vital.

In that regard, I think the right man is in place.

Since Van Graan arrived in October 2017, I’ve seen a guy who is willing to make calls tactically as required and on the playing staff, despite the “big names”. The reductive nature of modern Irish punditry has seen Van Graan painted with some labels that don’t really fit. The Proper Rugby Men of the Irish Rugby media have decided that Van Graan made “an error” in not picking Simon Zebo from the start for the semi-final in Bordeaux but is that such a surprise?

Firstly, Zebo was carrying an injury since the Toulon win but even if he wasn’t, could you say that consistency wise, this has been a full potential season for Simon Zebo? There have been some good individual moments, yes, but overall I think the call Van Graan made in backing Wootton in Bordeaux was the right one to make pre-game in the context of the time – Wootton is Munster’s top carrier, metre maker, defender beater, try scorer, and offloader this season – and recent form – Wootton earned an Awed Paulie against Toulon – despite how it ended up on the day.

It’s easy to crib about one selection post-match in the media. It’s a soft job. Coaching is anything but soft. That’s why Matt’s chatting on Newstalk and why Johann’s in charge of Munster Rugby.

From a positive point of view, Munster have a few key results to take from this season – the Racing win in Thomond Park, the back-to-back win over Leicester, the test window win over Glasgow, the unmatched tour of South Africa and, of course, the victory over a close to fully loaded Toulon side in Thomond Park. Those wins and the differing types of performance in all of them will contain key points for Munster to build on this preseason.

Ultimately, despite those positives, Munster’s season was defined by four key defeats to two key opponents.

Those losses – to the Champions Cup winners and runners-up – are nothing to be ashamed about in and of themselves, but each of those losses provided a template for where Munster need to improve against top opposition.

When you look at all of those games, you can see a common theme – early collapses in three of them, the need for elite direction at 10 and trouble off the tee as a constant in all of them.

It is reductive to boil all of Munster’s issues to the 10 shirt but when I watched back the key highlights of Munster’s season in the last week, I saw a familiar story game after game. Munster were able to generate a lot of opportunities – both of a line break and penalty variety – but weren’t able to capitalise on them in crunch games. A lot of that came down to kicking.

Bronze Boot

If we look at Munster’s record in the regular PRO14 this season – which gives us the biggest data set for a base level assessment of the performance as a squad, we can see a clear area for improvement.

SeasonPoints ScoredPoints ConcededPoints DifferenceTries ScoredTries ConcededDescription
2017/2018568361+2077842Erasmus Year 2/JVG Year 1
2016/2017602316+2867734Erasmus Year 1
2015/2016459417+425636Foley Year 2
2014/2015581367+2176831Foley Year 1
2013/2014538339+1995627Penney Year 2
2012/2013442389+534334Penney Year 1

Munster scored one more try in the regular season than last year – 2nd highest overall in the last 6 years – but scored 34 points less overall. That’s a drop in penalty conversions but, more importantly, a drop in our try conversions.

Kicker Overall Kicking % Conversions Penalties Overall Rank in PRO14
Ian Keatley 75% 29/41 10/11 26
JJ Hanrahan 71.79% 19/27 9/12 31
Tyler Bleyendaal 52.38% 3/10 7/10 39

 

Munster didn’t have a kicker in the top 25 of the league, which is telling, but for me, the biggest problem was our inability to convert tries to full 7 pointers. In total, we left 54 points behind after tries in the regular PRO14 season and, while our penalty conversion rate wasn’t bad, the fact that we attempted so little relative to other sides said a lot about our confidence off the tee.

That is an area of the game that we will need to tighten up. We cannot afford to leave 2/3 points a game behind us. Fully converted tries put more pressure on the opposition whether you’re in the lead or trying to pull one back. Against Ulster in January, Munster left four points behind on the tee in the first half that would have made for a 21-0 halftime lead instead of 17-0.

Even if everything else went the same in that second half, Ulster would still have been 2 points down with 5 minutes to play rather than being 19-17 ahead. They may well have gone on to win from that position but managing the last five minutes while being up by two points is a lot different than being down by two.

Against Leinster in October, Munster lost by six points but left four points on the tee from missed conversions. Munster lost to Leinster by a point two weekends ago and left two on the ground after Earls try, never mind the missed penalty in the first half.

Every point scored changes the complexion of the game from a management perspective.

Last season, Munster had Tyler Bleyendaal kicking 47 conversions all on his own last season, which is only 4 less than all of our other kickers combined this season. All in all, Bleyendaal had the highest strike rate in the then PRO12 with 62 successful penalties and conversions. Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan had 67 combined this season. Missing a conversion or a penalty here and there won’t kill you but if you miss enough of them, they add up.

Having a high percentage goal kicker changes how you look to manage games. If you have a guy who’s draining conversions, you’re more likely to trust him with a kickable penalty rather than hedging your bets and going down the line. That small dynamic changes how you play.

Defence

It can’t be ignored that our try defence is at a 6 year low, having conceded 42 tries in the regular PRO14 season but, strangely, only giving up 361 points (3rd overall in the last six years).

That goes down to the try quality we’ve conceded – in the wide areas mostly – and thus less likely to be converted but the raw number are worth nothing. Changing defence coaches mid-season played a big part – we can’t pretend that it didn’t – but I’d be hesitant to say that Munster are a bad defensive team. Munster have the second lowest tries conceded over both PRO14 conferences but Conference A was notably weaker than Conference B – and that has to be taken in context.

Our defence up the middle of the field was quite good for the most part but I noticed a lot of kick transition tries and tries conceded in the aftermath of suboptimal kicks over the course of the season. That plays into our overall problems with game management in that we often put ourselves in position to concede tries through the way we handle our possession. Whatever happens at 10 in the coming weeks and months, that is one part of our game that has to be cleaned up. “Playing in the right areas” is a cliche, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a crucial part of the game and, if Munster are to progress, then this is a key area to address.

Performance

Overall, there were 249 Three Crown Rating performances over the season from Munster players in our PRO14 and European Champions Cup games and 9 Awed Paulies.

Here’s a breakdown of the top 21 Three Crown ratings with all Awed Paulie winners listed;

PlayerThree Crown RatingsAwed Paulie
Rhys Marshall110
Jean Kleyn150
Jack O'Donoghue140
Ian Keatley110
Chris Farrell90
Andrew Conway51
Darren Sweetnam61
Alex Wootton81
Niall Scannell100
Stephen Archer80
Dave Kilcoyne90
Billy Holland110
Peter O'Mahony81
CJ Stander90
JJ Hanrahan60
John Ryan110
Rory Scannell91
Keith Earls51
Simon Zebo50
Chris Cloete81
James Cronin81
Sam Arnold51

Jean Kleyn is the top performer over the season going on my ratings, with James Cronin, Chris Cloete and Billy Holland having strong showings also.

Ian Keatley’s 11 Three Crown ratings were a reflection of his generally good performances in the early and middle part of the season. Ability isn’t, and has never been, the problem for Keatley in my opinion – it’s consistency.

Jack O’Donoghue’s strong performances at the start and end of the season make his knee injury all the tougher to take.

On the whole, this season tallied just behind 2016/2017 by 32 Three Crown equivalent ratings – 281 to 249 – which roughly correlates with the downturn in league results.

Conclusion

Munster are at a point where they have, as a playing group, consolidated a fairly solid top four in Europe position. The only problem is that there are no trophies handed out for that. At the moment, Munster seem to have reached a glass ceiling of sorts. Last season, we were overpowered in the semi-final against Scarlets and outran by the Scarlets in the PRO12 final. This season, we have regressed as far as results go but that isn’t as blunt a statistic as some would have you believe. Last season, Munster had a near-miraculous injury list. Any areas that did get thinned out found jokers of incredible quality – Thomas Du Toit, Jaco Taute and Jean Deysel are about as good as it gets for temporary cover – or longer in Jaco’s case.

More importantly, Munster didn’t get cut to the bone in key positions like what happened this season. Much was made of Leinster’s ability to absorb multiple injuries to their back row but they have unbelievable depth in that position to the point where it probably ended up benefitting their squad management in a perverse way. Managing Van Der Flier, Murphy, Heaslip, O’Brien, Leavy, Ruddock and Conan’s game time in a scenario where four of them weren’t injured for most of the season isn’t something that any Director of Rugby wants. Essentially, Leinster could afford back row injuries given their squad makeup. Two injuries to hooker, scrumhalf and lock and it’s a different story but they’ve earned and built the depth they have. Munster will have to do the same job.

Munster suffered multiple injuries at loosehead, tighthead, hooker, lock, openside and the midfield, often two or three deep at a time. At one point, Munster had two senior designated midfielders left out of a starting roster of five as the other three had been lost to various knee injuries. We had good depth in the back three and at 6/8 but injuries never really struck there.

Throw in a long-term injury to our Ryan-replacement Gerbrandt Grobler that kept him out for 5 months, a season of injury for our starting outhalf Tyler Bleyendaal and a succession of season-ending injuries to Chris Cloete, Tommy O’Donnell, Jaco Taute and Chris Farrell and you have a recipe for a thinned out squad that, at times, struggled to keep performance levels to the standards set from the season before. That’s before we go into injuries suffered by promising young guys at times of the year when they might have racked up good PRO14 minutes – Liam O’Connor, Fineen Wycherley and Sean O’Connor.

Injuries happen to every squad but Munster are not currently at the level that Leinster are at when it comes to absorbing a series of injuries and replacing the injured party with a player of close to the same standard. That is an element of the squad that Van Graan and the rest of the coaching staff will be looking to assess over the offseason with regards to recruitment and retention.

The game time that Calvin Nash, Dan Goggin, Stephen Fitzgerald, Darren O’Shea and Sam Arnold, in particular, will see real benefit next season.

I’m not saying that Munster would have won the double this season if we’d had Bleyendaal, Cloete, Farrell and/or Taute fit for the end of the season but I will say that, as a collective, that squad would have been closer to breaking that glass ceiling than it appeared in both playoffs this season.

This year saw Munster remind the world that Thomond Park can still produce magic against superstar teams and that we’ve got the firepower up front to go toe to toe with the best. Next season will be all the better with a settled coaching group, some clever recruitment and a building on the talent present in Year 2 and 3 of the academy.

If Munster can build on the transition attack that we have been building this season, keep our difference makers fit, and sort out our issues at 10 in A1 games, we’ll be close to getting where we need to be.

The laser focus will be on a trophy because, sport being what it is, you can’t be successful without one. You’re a loser until you’re not, and that’s the long and short of it. With a bit of luck, a bit of patience and a few finds in the playing group, I think Munster will show that the Iron Legion of the south is a lot closer than what it might seem in May 2018 but it’s up to us to show it.

I’m looking forward to it already.

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