Tony Ward: Progressive Van Graan still has to find winning midfield combination
It was this time last year when it was revealed that Johann van Graan would be taking over at Munster from Springboks-bound Rassie Erasmus. It was a little over a month later when he took control for his first match - a PRO14 win over Zebre.
His first dip into Europe saw back-to-back victories over Leicester Tigers in the December phase of the Champions Cup with Van Graan's side eventually topping the pool ahead of Racing 92 (the eventual beaten finalists), Castres and the Tigers. Munster then accounted for Toulon in the quarter-final.
Forgive the opportunism but I do detest almost everything this French club stands for and if I'm honest I wallowed in last week's first-round defeat for Mourad Boudjellal and his plastic army at home to the struggling Newcastle Falcons.
Munster eventually lost out to Donnacha Ryan and Racing in what was an encouraging campaign.
It was a formidable group for Van Graan in his initial quest but he had taken up where Erasmus left off by topping the pool and making it through to the penultimate phase.
Munster Red courses through my veins but we are not losing the run of ourselves by demanding that the southern province compete for the top prizes annually.
The set-up in Munster, specifically in Limerick at UL, is second to none.
In terms of off-field preparation they want for nothing. Long gone are those mad-hatter treks on the Mallow Road between Cork and Limerick either way.
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This is a top-class operation that at least ranks alongside any other training facility. The expectations are high and so they should be.
So where do Van Graan and the 'Class of 2018' stand?
I believe that under Van Graan's stewardship they are in a much better place with a much more solid foundation than when Erasmus departed on the back of the most one-sided arrangement possible.
They are by no means the finished article but as highlighted in last Monday's analysis piece, this match-day squad of forwards has greater strength in depth than even the Heineken Cup-winning period of 2006 to 2008.
When you consider the talented forwards they have in reserve - the likes of Michael Sherry, Dave O'Callaghan, Jack O'Donoghue, Conor Oliver, Fineen Wycherley, the emerging Jack O'Sullivan, and possibly Arno Botha too - then their stock appears to be in rude health.
The pack is the heartbeat of Munster rugby. It always was and always will be.
However, in order to turn semis into finals, and potential into silverware, it is imperative that the areas behind the scrum, specifically, 10, 12 and 13, are addressed.
The right individuals must be identified for those roles and then given the time and space to bed down as a unit and work towards an attacking place that Munster haven't been since Ronan O'Gara, Lifeimi Mafi and Rua Tipoki wore those numbered shirts a decade or so ago.
Felix Jones is highly respected by the players and by the powers that be in Munster Rugby.
My views on the importance of indigenous coaching, specifically surrounding former players, needs little elaboration at this stage but the one obvious point I would make in relation to the current backs coach is that I am not seeing any identifiable stamp in an attacking context.
The role of the full-back is central - it is the only position with a semblance of freedom still attached and I bow to the former Munster No 15's vastly superior knowledge of the position.
In Andrew Conway and potentially Mike Haley he has two keepers in the last line who have a natural instinct to run.
I would like to think the instruction to do just that is delivered prior to every game - elements allowing - but I am not seeing the type of inventiveness I know is in Conway's armoury and I suspect may be in Haley's too.
In relation to midfield, untimely injuries haven't helped.
I haven't a clue what the best combinations are - only the coaching staff have that facility and insider knowledge - but in Rory Scannell, Dan Goggin, Sam Arnold, Chris Farrell, possibly Jaco Taute, maybe Shane Daly, Tyler Bleyendaal or perhaps Christians' and Pres' finest in rookies Alex McHenry and Sean French, the raw material is in place.
The immediate aim must be to identify the best from Scannell, Goggin, Arnold and Farrell (when he is back firing) and develop that essential midfield chemistry but with Conway or Haley central to it.
Perhaps I'm being a little unfair but to the naked eye there is a level of disconnect between numbers 1-10 and the rest.
The loss of Simon Zebo - currently on fire at Racing - is not an issue given the alternatives available but his former team-mates need to utilise their full-back as a creative force.
Modern rugby is claustrophobic but the full-back can still offer lock-picking options that door-barging alone will never achieve.
Magical Thomond Park memories from 2003 and 'the miracle match' are bound to come flooding back this weekend as Munster and Gloucester front up for the eighth time.
However, the real magic is still at No 10 - Joey Carbery v Danny Cipriani. Long may they reign.