Coughlan: We can write new chapter
JAMES COUGHLAN will captain Munster in their first competitive game of the season tonight.
And yesterday he pinpointed the major issue his team-mates will have to deal with this season: "If we play well people will eventually stop asking how we're going to find life without certain players."
Life without two of the most influential men ever to wear Munster's red uniform begins at Musgrave Park tonight when Rob Penney's side face Edinburgh in the first of four meetings between the teams this season.
The pair will meet home and away in the Celtic League and have also been drawn in the same Heineken Cup pool – Munster open their European Cup campaign at Murrayfield in October.
The more immediate questions facing Munster are how they are going to get along without Doug Howlett and, more pointedly, Ronan O'Gara.
Howlett arrived at Munster in January 2008 and wove himself into the very fabric of the organisation by dint of his popularity among the players and supporters, his influence as a leader on and off the pitch and his enduring excellence.
He is believed to have been pondering retirement anyway, but in the end the Achilles tendon injury that brought last season to a premature end had the final say.
Contemplating life without O'Gara is an altogether different proposition. O'Gara made his debut for the senior team way back in 1997 and has been a constant for Munster in all they have achieved since then. He was the on-field conductor behind their successes.
Replacing an icon is an impossible task and one Munster coach Penney insisted they would not try to do, saying: "You can't expect a Ronan O'Gara-type player. He's irreplaceable."
Munster do have options at out-half in Ian Keatley, who will start the season as first-choice pivot, and the younger JJ Hanrahan, a player who has been impressing the senior members of the squad.
"I thought JJ did very well when he came on against London Irish," said Coughlan.
The No 8 also pointedly praised another of the new generation of Munster players who will be charged with reviving the province's fortunes. "Ronan O'Mahony had a stand-out game with his hat-trick of tries," he added.
It surely wasn't random that Coughlan was generous in his praise of two of Munster's youngest players, two players it is hoped will help forge a new chapter in the team's storied history.
Players retire and move on in professional sport; it's how teams deal with these developments that define them.
"The onus is on us to perform. It's an opportunity for us to write our own chapter. The lads (O'Gara and Howlett) had amazing success," he said.
"It's a new team in one sense but one built in the same tradition. In that regard, nothing changes. It's the same atmosphere around the place, the same drive, the same mentality.
"It's a massive challenge for us to build our own legacy without Doug and Ronan. That starts against Edinburgh."
Munster's run to the semi-final of the Heineken Cup last season belied their final league position as they missed out on the play-offs for the first time since 2007.
It has led to the suggestion that Munster will struggle in the coming seasons as they might find it hard to replace the old guard who piloted them to such success over the years. It's a suggestion Coughlan rejects.
"We have a very strong young squad here, certainly good enough to win trophies," he stated emphatically. "It's about being successful. We're in every competition to win it."
The back-row believes that the onus is on the forwards to provide the right environment for their backs – young as they are – to show what they're capable of.
"It's about the forwards giving them the platform. You have to win the battle up front in every game, week by week," he said.
Because tonight's game is the first of four between the teams, the result and performance is especially important – it is about laying down a marker and establishing a position of dominance that could influence their future meetings.
If Coughlan's belief in Munster's ability to be successful is to be vindicated they will have to show far more consistency in their performances than they did last season, when they clearly struggled to adapt to Penney's vision and to integrate it into their play.
Tonight's captain is confident that can be achieved.
"I think this time 12 months ago it was about learning and growth. Now it's about adding the detail and performing," said Coughlan.
"Fellas have experienced the level we need to be performing at and now it's about ensuring we're at those levels that we know can win a Heineken Cup. At the end of the day we were a bounce of a ball away from being in the Heineken Cup final.
"We know that performance is within the group. We have had a season of growth and now it's about ensuring that we're still playing and competing for trophies in May.
"Last May we were involved in a mini pre-season training regime because we had nothing to play for. That was a kick in the behind for us and we want to ensure we don't go through that again, and that starts against Edinburgh."