Friday 30 September 2016

Six talking points for Munster ahead of new season

Erasmus arrival means squad have no excuses as Munster look to lift gloom

Published 01/09/2016 | 02:30

Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and head coach Anthony Foley during training Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and head coach Anthony Foley during training Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

For the third season in five, Munster have a new man at the helm as they look to get back to the top.

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Over the course of that period, their fortunes have declined on and off the pitch. They won their last trophy in 2011 when claiming the Guinness Pro12 and have failed to emerge from their Champions Cup pool over the past two seasons.

Last year, they struggled on both fronts and needed a late-season bounce to retain their place in the top European competition.

It didn't cost Anthony Foley his title, but it did cost him his place as leader of the organisation. This year, the head coach returns to his role as a cog in the wheel as former Springbok Johan 'Rassie' Erasmus takes over as director of rugby.

The entire coaching ticket has had a reboot and that has increased the levels of optimism down south, but the challenge for the new man is getting more from what is effectively the same group of players.

Erasmus comes with a formidable reputation and is further boosted by the province's new base in Limerick, a long overdue move that should make running the team a far easier logistical challenge than in previous years.

He has been making the right noises and has a record of turning under-performing teams around.

He will need all of that nous and experience in year one, but he will also be afforded some time to get things right by a fan-base that has had to get used to some time on the fringes.

A hellish European draw means that the full focus should be on domestic affairs from the off as Erasmus looks to make gains in his first season.

Squad

No Irish province is as reliant on its Ireland internationals as Munster, who struggle to cope without their front-liners.

With nine Tests during the regular season and CJ Stander joining Conor Murray, Peter O'Mahony and Keith Earls as automatic choices for Joe Schmidt, there is a strain on the rest of the squad.

Erasmus has not spent much in an attempt to improve things, with South African second-row Jean Kleyn the only non-Irish recruit to date.

BJ Botha has left, while there are question marks over Mark Chisholm's future.

Injuries to Francis Saili and Johnny Holland are major blows, even if we may see Tyler Bleyendaal finally get a clean run at the start of the campaign, and Jack O'Donoghue, Rory Scannell, Ronan O'Mahony and Darren Sweetnam will benefit from their involvement last season.

Munster's resources at front-row and half-back will be tested, while Saili's absence robs them of creativity during the first half of the season.

Coaching ticket

On paper, the combination of experienced and successful South African pair Erasmus and his defence coach Jacques Nienaber and Munster trio Foley, Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones looks a good blend.

If Foley is peeved at having been replaced, then he is doing a good job of hiding it publicly and he can now focus on the day-to-day job of preparing the team under his new boss' watchful eye.

Nienaber is a highly regarded addition who must add serious steel to a defence that leaked line-breaks last season, while Erasmus and Jones are tasked with re-inventing the province's stunted attacking game.

Behind the scenes, having Paul O'Connell on board with the academy will be a source of strength and it would be no surprise to see the legendary former captain's face become a more prominent feature as the campaign goes on.

Munster needed something different after last season's woes and the players will hope that the fresh voice and new ideas will get them going.

Expectation

Rarely has there been less expected of Munster going into a new season after last year's struggles. The bookies have them as 9/1 outsiders for the league, while the presence of Racing 92, Leicester Tigers and Glasgow Warriors in their pool has dampened enthusiasm for Europe.

Fans will hope for a tilt at the Pro12 title but will settle for signs of marked improvement in Erasmus' first year.

Recruitment

Financial constraints and the IRFU rules mean that Munster are shopping at the lower end of the market, and it shows.

Hard-carrying lock Jean Kleyn has arrived from the Stormers and looks to be exactly what the province's engine-room needs, but last season it looked like this squad needed major surgery and it hasn't come.

Sam Arnold arrives from Ulster with a big reputation but a worrying recent history of injuries, while journeyman prop John Andress was a bit-part player with Edinburgh last season and is hardly a like-for-like replacement for Botha in terms of class.

South African centre Jaco Taute may yet join as cover for Saili, but all-in-all there are no big names to put bums on seats.

Room for growth

The expected return to fitness of Peter O'Mahony certainly improves Munster's prospects, as does the prospect of Bleyendaal finally getting a run of games.

Stander should have a better handle on balancing the high of Test matches with the normality of the league, while there is room for improvement among the young players who made the breakthrough last season.

X-factor

The loss of Saili for so long deprives Munster of their No 1 game-breaker, but too often last season his team-mates weren't on the same wave-length.

Still, Simon Zebo and Keith Earls can both create something from nothing, while Stander is also able to turn a game with his raw physicality.

Verdict

Munster have made strides off the pitch and look better set up for success, but they may need to wait at least a season for the on-pitch results to catch up.

Their squad looks below the standard required to capture any titles this season, particularly when the Ireland contingent are away.

There are major question marks at out-half given Holland's injury, Bleyendaal's reliability and Ian Keatley's form in the second half of last season, and the scrum must be a concern against the best opponents.

Still, they can make progress with a top-four finish.

Irish Independent

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