The T Word

Transition is coming, one way or the other.

On the 7th of May, 2016 Munster beat the Scarlets 31-15 to scrape into the European Cup places in the then PRO12 by the skin of our teeth after the worst season Munster had ever put down. We finished 6th that season, losing 40% of our regular-season games. It is, by any standard, Munster’s worst season in the professional era.

This season, Munster finished… 6th in the United Rugby Championship after losing 38% of our regular-season games and, while the season isn’t done yet and could, in theory anyway, still end in a trophy, definitely does seem like the end of a cycle, rather than the mid-point. From a pure numbers POV, this season has been the third-worst we’ve put down since 2010/11 and while injuries have played a part – for Munster, they always seem to – there can be no hiding place. After 2015/16, all but one of the coaching team were replaced and the same is true this time around.

The dreaded “T” word – back for another go around the block. Transition, like Winter, is coming. It might feel like we’ve been in transition since 2012/13 but that’s not really true. As an aside, this year has a lot of parallels with 2012/13, actually. Home and away defeats by Leinster, a poor regular season campaign with some disappointing losses, a win over a slightly overrated English side in the knockouts before losing narrowly to a big French team in the next round. Then, unlike now, Munster were actually in the middle of a large transition. Club legends like Jerry Flannery, David Wallace, Denis Leamy, John Hayes, Mick O’Driscoll, Tomás O’Leary and Lifeimi Mafi all left due to retirement or a move overseas.

In the same offseason.

So what came afterwards? The first season under Rob Penney – 2012/2013 – saw a massive departure, style-wise, but also a tonne of upward movement in the depth chart. A lot of the players who won a British & Irish Cup for Munster A in April 2012 were starting for Munster in the Heineken Cup in October 2012.

Dave Kilcoyne, Paddy Butler, Danny Barnes and Dave O’Callaghan all featured in the first Heineken Cup fixture of 2012/13 Former Ulster academy player Sean Dougall (then 23) who had been signed the previous off-season started in the back row.

Peter O’Mahony, Simon Zebo and Conor Murray – who had broken through the season before – had prominent roles in that first Heineken Cup fixture away to Racing too and, while Ronan O’Gara was still the starting #10 at that stage, Penney had selected Ian Keatley at fullback with a view to easing the transition that at that stage looked inevitable.

In the next off-season, Munster would lose Marcus Horan, Wian Du Preez, Doug Howlett, Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara. We would replace all of those players from within.

When you consider the departure of big, foundational names over two seasons combined with a massive change in not only coaching but style, it was the biggest attempted squad transition then undertaken in Irish rugby when you consider that Munster were replacing what was, essentially, large parts of the Irish 1-10 from the previous decade across two offseasons.

In the aftermath of 2015/16, the newly hired Rassie Erasmus set about getting a full squad transition done inside a season. The return of Tyler Bleyendaal to full fitness after a year out of the game after being signed to essentially replace Ian Keatley ahead of 2015/16 season meant that much of the work for Rassie was already done. He brought in Rhys Marshall and Jean Kleyn on permanent deals and managed to bring in Thomas Du Toit, Jaco Taute and Jean Deysel on temporary deals throughout that season.

He released a tonne of our academy at the time for a full refresh of the youth pathway – that we are only now, in 2022, beginning to properly see results from – and saw down chart players like Cian Bohane, Rory Burke, John Madigan and Peter McCabe leaving the club with Francis Saili’s eye-watering, massive wages moving off the books to Harlequins and the 34-year-old Donnacha Ryan turning down a provincial deal to move to Racing 92. Rassie and Nienaber effectively left in the spring of 2016 when they activated their exit clause to go back to South Africa as the Springbok Director of Rugby. He wouldn’t physically leave until midway through 2017/18 when he was replaced by Van Graan.

Oddly, the next time you could say that Munster were genuinely in a state that could be described as transitioning from one style to another was probably 2019/20 when Rowntree and Larkham arrived to replace Jones and Flannery, who had left that previous off-season of their own volition.

In the years since Van Graan took over, the pruning at the bottom end of the depth chart has continued with a lot of guys heading out the door that were mostly either never going to make it as a starting option anyway, or they were spent as a top-level option, or they were NIQ bridging players or they were positional alternates in a spot where a younger/cheaper/higher potential option was waiting.

Since Van Graan took over there have been relatively minor changes in personnel to the Category A Munster side.

Fineen Wycherley has mostly taken Billy Holland’s spot, CJ Stander’s early retirement coincided well with Gavin Coombes’ rise, De Allende has replaced Scannell like-for-like for the duration of his two-year deal, Tommy O’Donnell’s injury issues forced him down the depth chart, Carbery’s return from an 18-month long injury absence saw Hanrahan released, Diarmuid Barron has replaced Kevin O’Byrne as the rotation hooker and Kilcoyne’s regular injury troubles have seen a lot of minutes for Loughman and, this season, the emerging Josh Wycherley.

Outside that, most of the starting team has remained exactly the same.

Dave Kilcoyne (injury allowing), Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer, John Ryan, Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony, Jack O’Donoghue, Conor Murray, Joey Carbery (injury allowing), Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Andrew Conway and Mike Haley all hold more or less the same depth chart positions as they did mid-way through the 2019/20 season and, of that group, I would argue that only Jean Kleyn and Peter O’Mahony have stayed at the same relative level of performance and, for me, only Tadhg Beirne has significantly improved his level since then.

Guys like Jack O’Donoghue, you could argue, have improved too but he’s been so up and down from one game to the next that I’m not quite sure what his actual level is. Whatever it is, it seems to be below test level for the time being and I’m basing that on nothing more than who Andy Farrell has chosen to involve in the test bubble and who he hasn’t. Maybe that will change but for every game like Toulouse, there are games away to Connacht and this past weekend away to Leinster B. If that’s the level, that’s fine, you always need guys like that in the squad, but it has to inform part of your transition thinking too.

The key area for Munster to focus on in the next two seasons has to be the front five.

Guys like Thomas Ahern will continue to develop and you’d have a lot of hope in O’Connor, Kelly and Edogbo to show up next season for enhanced minutes alongside established options like Kleyn, Beirne, Wycherley and RG Snyman – if he can stay fit.

The real focus has to be the front row.

John Ryan leaves this season for Wasps which is the first departure of a nominally first choice Irish qualified player to another club since Simon Zebo in 2018. With Keynan Knox, James French and Roman Salanoa in possession of two and three-year deals respectively, the chain of succession looks pretty clear.

Archer will remain as the veteran safety pin with Knox the best placed to shoot up the depth chart after two “building” years on a senior contract. This pattern is not unusual in Irish rugby. Leinster’s Tadhg Furlong, as an example, took roughly three years to break through as a regular starting option from when he first signed a pro-deal in 2014/15. But that’s not even half the story. Furlong had been in the Leinster academy since 2011/12, completing all three years and shipping a few injuries along the way. Even with those three academy years, it was a good three more years on a senior professional deal before Furlong was beginning to look like the Tadhg Furlong we know today at 25 years of age.

At the time of writing, Keynan Knox turned 23 last month and moves onto his second fully professional deal this summer. The expectation would be that year three of Knox’s senior career would see him build on the 323 minutes he’s earned this season to date. That’s less than Furlong’s 800+ minutes at the same time but, as ever, context is key. COVID wasn’t a problem back then but Furlong’s minutes were helped by Mike Ross’s international involvements during that season in the build-up to the World Cup and a series of shoulder injuries to the already established Marty Moore, another capped international, that kept him out for most of 2014/15.

The same windows haven’t been there for Knox but the road to a great prominence has opened up with Ryan’s departure and Archer taking up a one year, veteran role.

The hope – and it is hope – that Roman Salanoa can finally put his injury issues behind him and put together considerably more minutes than his 170 minutes across two seasons but, like Furlong back in his formative years, power props like Salanoa are prone to picking up injuries and, at 24, Salanoa is still a relative newcomer to the game and the conditioning that comes with it. A good preseason and a bit of luck could see him easily scaling up to be a 55/25 level option next season. You could say almost the exact same for James French as he starts a new two-year deal. He’s swapped between loosehead and tighthead already in his young career – such as that’s possible given his repeated injury issues since the minute he walked into the academy – but he’s another incredibly young option with a huge upside. If fit, he’ll see significant minutes next season one way or the other.

The other side of the scrum has fewer options but more certainty, in some ways.

Dave Kilcoyne is still the established senior option but is currently sitting out the rest of the season with a neck injury sustained during the Six Nations. Kilcoyne is off-contract at the end of next season and, given his injury record, age and the likelihood that he’s on a high tier provincial contract in an environment where Munster will have to cut more contract value next season, it would seem like he’s a prime candidate to cycle out of the squad.

Josh Wycherley is a top-performing young player with high potential and, injury allowing, should be a foundational piece of the front row puzzle going forward as he’s only in the first year of his first senior deal. The next in line is Jeremy Loughman – one of the first players signed by Van Graan – who has a good skill set but has some notable poor performances when it comes to crunch games and questions about his actual level of ability based on the last few months. For every good moment you see of Loughman, there are just as many examples of a lack of top-end heft, scrummaging and aggression. If kept as a third in the chart fill option, I think he has value to add over the next two years but with Liam O’Connor and the academy’s Mark Donnelly behind him it would seem that there is space for someone to make a run next season to nail down the alternate spot to Josh Wycherley, presuming everyone manages to avoid long term injury.

Wycherley and a veteran Kilcoyne would seem to make a good pairing on paper next season for Category A games but if Kilcoyne’s injury issues continue, I wouldn’t be massively confident that we’ll see too much different from Jeremy Loughman at this stage of his career to be comfortable with him as our 1B in that position going forward. I do like Mark Donnelly but he will only be in Year 2 of the academy next season so my expectations for him are tempered by time. Loosehead has looked a little thin since James Cronin left last season but you could argue that, for the same reason you’d be concerned about Jack O’Donoghue’s top-level value going forward in the back row, you would argue that a similar thought process could be applied to Cronin.

I won’t argue that Cronin hasn’t been missed this season though which overrides most of the thought process on contract value. Are we better or worse in the front row this year without James Cronin? I would say we’re worse off and that Jeremy Loughman’s new two-year deal signed this year is a direct consequence of Cronin being jerked around the season before. 

With that in mind, it would seem like loosehead would be a prime area for Munster to sign someone in the off-season of 2023 post-World Cup with the contracts expiring as they are with Josh Wycherley being the centrepiece in the position going forward.

Hooker is more complex again. In the last two seasons, Munster have released signed and released Declan Moore, released Rhys Marshall and Kevin O’Byrne and promoted Diarmuid Barron from the academy with Niall Scannell being the primary starter barring injury. Scannell has been Munster’s primary hooker since 2016/17 when he emerged as a powerful scrummager, rock-solid lineout thrower and a good support forward around the field. His peak years, however, were arguably from 2017 to 2019 when he racked up good test minutes and made the World Cup squad in 2019.

My contention is that Niall Scannell is a good player who, with the evolution of the game since 2017, has found himself passed out with regards to what teams value in a hooker. He’s a good scrummager and a good thrower but, I would argue, a sub-elite level athlete for the position in 2022.

That has essentially finished his Ireland career and put him in a bad spot with Munster as the seasons have progressed. In 2015, 20% of all tries in Super Rugby were scored off the scrum. Super Rugby is different from the Northern Hemisphere in some ways but try origins are steady across both hemispheres. In 2022, that try origin number for the scrum is less than 15%. In 2015, 38% of all try origins came from the lineout and that number rises north of 50% in 2022. That isn’t just mauled tries – Scannell is able as anyone to score off the back of a 5m maul drive – but it’s about the radiating threats you can generate off maul feints and your hooker is the best-placed player to take advantage of this focus.

Scannell is a good scrummager – it’s always been a good quality of his – but the number of awarded scrum penalties is as low as it’s been at any stage in the modern game due to most referees wanting to avoid making the scrum the dominant factor in the game most of the time. There are always exceptions but the idea of No Scrum, No Win is an outlier in the modern game to the point where you can probably remember the last time the scrum truly decided a game one way or the other.

As an example, just go back to that Toulouse game. For all Munster’s nightmares in the scrum in that game, we still should have won – thrice over – so while the scrum hurt us at key points, I wouldn’t say it’s something that cost us the game. Our own lack of attacking efficiency did that. Leinster had similar issues in the scrum against Leicester and Toulouse but it didn’t matter – the game is moving away from the scrum as a deciding factor in outcome in the vast majority of games.

The lineout is the new frontier and the hooker is a key offensive component of that setpiece; not just as a thrower, either.

The hooker throws the ball into the lineout so, after the lineout action of the lift, catch, drop and play they are often the player who arrives last to the maul or who attacks the line at pace as a carrying option off a swivel pass or pop from the lineout or maul. How they break off the maul, in particular, is a key component in assessing the modern hooker. In much the same way that an #8 that can’t break with pace and power off the back of the scrum is less of an elite option that an #8 who can, a hooker that can’t explode and compress defenders off the back of a lineout is less of an elite option than one who can.

This aspect of Scannell’s game is consistently less than what it needs to be. What do I mean by “explode”? I mean being able to launch off the line – or the back of the maul – with acceleration, pace and power in such a way that you can dominate collisions against opponents who will either be static, going backwards or moving slower than you are at the point of contact.

This is just one example, sure, but go back all through the season and you’ll see this showing up time and again. Diarmuid Barron is still quite young but has elements of the same problem in his game – albeit with a number of years to change his physique and athletic profile accordingly. Kevin O’Byrne had the same problem but for a different reason in that, he was perhaps too slight to impact elite defences but had the skill set to add value in a way that worked, for a time.

When you look at Munster going to quite complex attacking lineout schemes part of me wonders if that over complexity is a consequence of how unexplosive we are off the inside loop – the line that our hookers are most likely to take – and how we seem to be consistently struggling to impact top sides in the maul because, for the most part, their flank defenders don’t have to worry about our maul break options as they currently stand.

Just look at La Rochelle and Leinster as an example. O’Gara uses the hugely athletic Bourgarit and Bosch as his primary hookers while Cullen and Lancaster have made great strides with Kelleher and Dan Sheehan. Dan Sheehan is actually a perfect illustration of the changing value of a hooker because he was rated below former Munster academy hooker Eoghan Clarke when both players were in the Leinster sub-academy and might not have made it at all if Mike Ruddock didn’t have a look at him again in 2019. What was (and still is) his primary weakness? His scrummaging. My contention is that unless your scrummaging is a complete washout, it doesn’t matter. Sheehan is an excellent thrower and a hugely explosive runner off the line and off the back of a maul. He – and Kelleher – allow Leinster to play with the kind of simplicity in the lineout that Munster can’t.

We live in the era of the Power Hooker and if you don’t have one, your attack is already limited before you do anything.

Scott Buckley is Munster’s highest hope for an immediate improvement to that core area of our set-piece attack. He’s got the pace, power and explosivity to be a top-quality option from minute one of next season, should he get through pre-season without injury.

Munster have also signed Chris Moore from Exeter University, another young player who fits that Power Hooker role set and while elements of his game are a question mark, he’s got the raw materials physically to be a threat where he needs to be. What’s his scrummaging like? Well, unless it’s a complete disaster, it doesn’t matter.

Niall Scannell is the only senior hooker who is off-contract at the end of next season and, as a then 31-year-old hooker on a higher-end contract but solidly outside of the test bubble, he seems like a guy that might struggle for a renewal to his current deal in the context of Munster’s budgetary position and his overall suitability to the game that we will be expected to play at the elite level.

The upcoming preseason will be one of the most important for a while. While we expect the game that Mike Prendergast plays to be different than what we have seen under Larkham, I don’t think there will be much in the way of a stylistic gap to bridge in the same way that you would be required to do when moving from kick pressure to something more involved and possession based.

Personnel transition is all but a certainty in a number of key positions. I’ve gone over the front row but you could argue that there are multiple positions in the back row, at halfback, in midfield and the back three that have to be refreshed also.

Whatever happens, it won’t be boring.