Tuesday 25 June 2019

Alan Quinlan: 'Attack, attack, attack - Munster can't afford to get coach appointment wrong'

Munster head coach Johann van Graan. Photo: Sportsfile
Munster head coach Johann van Graan. Photo: Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

Munster's next move might just be their most important of the season; the club's intent must be outlined and supporters reassured that ambitions remain as high as ever.

Negativity is spreading, but that can be turned around sharply with a dash of perspective and a couple of exciting coaching appointments.

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As far as I'm concerned, the Munster glass is still half-full, but after a couple of disheartening weeks the fans have every right to be venting their frustrations, and they could really do with something to shout about.

The coaching voids are obviously the immediate priority, but high up on the to-do list must be addressing some obvious legacy issues from Rassie Erasmus's tenure.

Rassie did a superb job in the year and a half he was steering the ship; PRO12 Coach of the Year for 2016/'17 after a superb season that saw Munster top the table with 19 wins from 22 games, although they were denied silverware two years ago by a superb Scarlets side.

There was another 16-point semi-final defeat to eventual Champions Cup winners Saracens, but all in all it was a season of ferocious intensity and genuine progress.

Considering Leinster and Glasgow had just one player each named in this season's PRO14 Dream Team, it is interesting to note that six Munster men made the 2016/'17 equivalent - Dave Kilcoyne, John Ryan, Billy Holland, Tyler Bleyendaal, Rory Scannell and Jaco Taute - illustrating the impact Erasmus's side made across the entire season.

Major strides were made under Rassie, but they were largely direct and somewhat one-dimensional. And therein lies the problem for Johann van Graan. The dogs in the street know at this stage that Munster's attack just doesn't have enough potency to trouble the best club teams in Europe.

It's rare these days that players speak so openly about specific failings, and it was refreshing to hear a candid Chris Farrell address the issue in recent weeks.

"It is the last aspect of our game that really needs to kick on and really needs a little bit of work, because everything else is so good," the Munster centre explained.

"So if we can change our attack a slight bit, just to get a little bit more out of it and attack space in the right areas, then we can definitely be a lot better.

"One thing that we need to develop is our forwards being on the same page as our backs. It's not about a forward unit working and then a backs unit separately whenever they want the ball. It's about having both."

Munster's new attack coach will have a big job on his hands, but he won't need to oversee a complete transformation. It's not as if they are just probing with a blunt instrument at the moment.

They were, after all, the third-highest try-scorers in the PRO14 this season - only behind today's two finalists. The tools are there, they just need some serious sharpening.

There needs to be a change in mindset; the players' natural instinct should no longer be to seek contact as a first option. They must add variety, look for more offloads and run lines with more evasiveness.

The skills need to improve, with a major focus on the ball. Look at the progress Pat Lam made at Connacht, with the help of Dave Ellis, and how the westerners became an entirely different attacking beast in a relatively short space of time.

Munster need to ask different questions of opposition defences because when it comes to knockout rugby, the top teams currently seem to have all the answers.

Seeing Benetton nearly topple Munster in Thomond Park was a cutting reality check. An Italian club team, with all due respect, showing such invention in attack, in Limerick, highlighted what Van Graan's side are really missing.

Using one-out runners and kicking for territory will still have its place, particularly in winter months on the road, but you would imagine the likes of Joey Carbery, Keith Earls, Andrew Conway and Scannell would enjoy, and excel, tapping into their natural attacking instincts a bit more.

It is easy to forget how talented Scannell is as a footballer; he's evasive, a good distributor and a natural playmaker, yet watching Munster in recent times you'd start to see him solely as a crash-ball inside-centre.

It's all well and good dreaming of big-money signings; I'd love to see a world-class second-row like Eben Etzebeth come in to free up Tadhg Beirne to possibly play in the back-row for instance, as well as a quality centre who can play the game both ways in the ilk of Ma'a Nonu, but it's just not realistic for Munster in the current climate.

Munster were keen on South African out-half Handre Pollard - who wouldn't be? - but Montpellier's millions ultimately won out. That's the nature of the lopsided market the Irish provinces are competing in.

Opportunities may present themselves around and after the World Cup for signings, and you never know what kind of injuries may force the IRFU's hand to give a dig-out. But for now, Van Graan has said that aside from Nick McCarthy, he doesn't expect any new faces to be joining the squad for 2019/'20.

Considering the excitement that the signings of Joey Carbery, Beirne, Arno Botha, Mike Haley and Alby Mathewson generated last season, that may be a bit underwhelming for Munster supporters. But at the same time, there is plenty of talent in the current squad, and there is a buzz around the latest crop of youngsters that I haven't seen for some time.

There was a strong Munster presence on this season's Grand Slam-winning U-20s side and you would expect a number of that crop, and those one or two years further down the line, to kick on next season and bring a real energy to the senior squad.

Munster fans are right to be concerned, eight years without a trophy is too long for a club of this stature.

All of us in Munster await the next move with bated breath but as long as they get the coaching appointments right, there should be plenty to be positive about.

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