Munster on a mission
Published 19/05/2015 | 02:30
This time last season, Munster were preparing for what would ultimately be the final game of the Rob Penney era.
The New Zealander's two years in charge will be remembered in conflicting terms with the highs of two epic European semi-finals countered by a game-plan that never seemed to fit and an alarming inconsistency that saw the Reds miss out on the Pro12 play-offs in year one and lose their dominant position last season.
That set them on the road for the semi-final where they could and probably should have beaten Glasgow at Scotstoun, but finished in sadly familiar form, going from side to side with second-rows in the wide channels and ultimately coming up short.
As he approaches the business end of an at times difficult first season in charge, Penney's replacement Anthony Foley (below) can pause for a little reflection before focusing on the prospect of taking on Ospreys at Thomond Park this Saturday.
While he failed to replicate his predecessor's European success from a far more difficult pool, the former Ireland No 8 overcame a sloppy start to the league campaign to gather enough points to finish second on the table.
Their total, 75, is just one more point than they accumulated last season but the league has been far tighter this season and, whereas last season they lost momentum on the run-in, this time around they've suffered one defeat in their last 10 league games in earning a home semi-final.
"We'd take it. We lost five games across the season and two of them were in the first few weeks," is Foley's assessment.
"From that point on, we've been pretty consistent. We'd a tough Christmas, a lot of games away from home during that period and we dropped a few points around that.
"Since the Six Nations to now we've been pretty good. The one blemish has been Ospreys away over there and the two draws, but they were away from home and are bonus results in one respect."
The 41-year-old's ambition to become head coach at his home province has been long known, but now that he's had a regular season we're beginning to see what an Anthony Foley team looks like.
"You're never fully there after one season, it's a building process with recruitment. We're obviously recruiting this year and players will come and go," he said.
"The coaches are a year wiser, talking to the guys who are coming into the first time to the professional game (as coaches), Jerry (Flannery), Mick (O'Driscoll) and Brian (Walsh) - it's just telling them how quick things will happen, how quickly it will be over with.
"Obviously, you make mistakes and there's errors along the way, but it's how you react and how you manage them. We've done that well.
"We've a home semi-final, but there's nothing guaranteed - we know that from past experience and we just want to go out at Thomond Park and give a good account of ourselves."
Those mistakes led to some dark days, with the Killaloe native admitting earlier in the year that dealing with defeats had cost him a few nights' sleep.
Learning to deal with the emotional rollercoaster has been a key for Foley actually enjoying the job he coveted for so long.
"It has been very enjoyable, lots of aspects of it," he says of the campaign
"It's a professional game, you've got to take the highs. They can't be too high and you can't be too low with the lows, otherwise you'll go absolutely mad.
"It's important to have a good balance and I think we've started to find that balance over the last number of months."
Certainly, other coaches are beginning to see a Foley imprint on this Munster team as the season goes on.
"It's a different team, a really efficient team and when they get opportunities they take them," Ospreys coach Steve Tandy said ahead of their meeting on Saturday.
"They're smart, their set-piece is really hard-nosed and, when they get into the 22, they keep the ball like the Munster of old. It's difficult to get the ball off them, they really squeeze you.
"Anthony's done a great job, there's still a real balance around the field and they've got good experience in their pack as well.
"They're a well-rounded team with a bit more experience around their team than us, but our lads will be excited by the challenge."
As the season has evolved, the squad available to Foley has improved with players like Keith Earls and Donnacha Ryan returning from injury and their attacking game has improved.
"I think we've gotten better as the year has gone on. We've stuck to what has worked for us. We've tried to impose our game-plan on the opposition and make sure we can kick on and try to win something," he said.
"We've had to call on different players at different times to do different jobs and they've really stepped up.
"There hasn't been any heads dropped, fellas have come out fighting at every opportunity. There's a good competition within the group at training sessions, good competition for selection. Everyone puts their hands up and hopefully we can grow beyond that year with it."
Any progress will be truly tested by results over the coming weeks as Munster go in search of a first trophy since they claimed the league in 2011.
Famously, no team has ever won an away semi-final since the play-offs were introduced but that record can't last forever and with so little between the top four all season things are likely to be tight this weekend.
In a campaign where the Thomond Park factor was undermined by poor gates and worse results, there is a chance for Munster to show how far they've bounced back at their spiritual home and finish on a high.