Thursday 18 January 2018

No excuses despite shuffle in off-season

Erasmus will be keen to leave province on a winning note

Rassie Erasmus issues the instructions. Photo: Sportsfile
Rassie Erasmus issues the instructions. Photo: Sportsfile
Simon Zebo in full flight during training. Photo: Sportsfile

David Wallace

Of course everyone enjoys the summer months but the expectation builds gradually towards September and it all culminates with the beginning of a new PRO14 campaign.

The Cheetahs and Southern Kings from South Africa will certainly spice things up and it was badly needed, as the league looks to compete with the cash-rich Top14 and Aviva Premiership in Europe.

Ulster and Scarlets are the first two sides that will get to pit their wits against their South African opponents, and it will be intriguing to see how the Celtic teams fare in that company.

For Munster it's back to basics this weekend with Treviso visiting Cork, but there is a certain degree of uncertainty languishing around the province.

Rassie Erasmus's departure seemed inevitable after the way things materialised last year, his stock rose massively in the face of adversity and the way he helped the team to bounce back in the PRO12 and in Europe.

He will leave Munster on a better footing but the problem is whether the team can put that to the back of their minds and focus on the action on the field.

You certainly can't begrudge Rassie going. It's a massive opportunity for him and Jacques Nienaber to coach and represent their country. But Munster need to try and find their successor now. 

It does sound like they're trying to impart their knowledge to Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones, even allowing them to take control of some training sessions, so it's not as big of a change as it might have been.

That is so important, and it's seems that they are very methodical and pragmatic in doing what's best for Munster. 

But fair dues to Rassie, Munster were lucky to have his services last season especially with the way things turned out.

It was a massive learning curve for the team, and it's important to recreate that momentum and belief, in pushing themselves to accept higher standards, that will be paramount to having a good season.

Improved

The squad has been improved upon massively in pre-season with Chris Farrell, JJ Hanrahan, James Hart, Chris Cloete and Gerbrandt Grobler coming in to add their vast skills and experience.

Farrell's potential partnership with Jaco Taute is an awesome physical prospect while Hanrahan and Hart add a great deal of depth. Cloete and Grobler are two beasts and the latter's link-up with Jean Kleyn in the second-row could be a major boost.

When you top that off with the eight-nine-ten axis that is already there with CJ Stander, Conor Murray and Tyler Bleyendaal, and Keith Earls and Simon Zebo on the wings, Munster look to be a fearsome outfit. But there are many variables at play ahead of the start of the 2017-18 season, new teams and players will make for compelling viewing as the early rounds play out.

Despite all that happened last season, Munster still reached a Champions Cup semi-final, and they made the decider in the PRO12. The foundations are there to make a push for silverware this time around and the new recruits will need to hit the ground running.

I believe Scarlets are the favourites to win the first PRO14 after what they did at the end of last season, and with the addition of Leigh Halfpenny.

But lots of players have come and gone and it will be exciting to see how they bed in across the board.

Munster have brought in some serious talent for 2017-18 and the age profile of their team is promising.

Although it's a young squad there are vast levels of experience there and it could be the perfect dynamic this time around.

Mike Sherry is back and available after such a long spell out. He adds so much to the front row and there are a lot of options at hooker which can only be a good thing.

It's been a very long time since the back-three options were so plentiful and it all bodes well for the latter stages of the various competitions later on.

But for now Munster need to worry about negotiating the challenge of Treviso before they can worry about the bigger challenges around the corner.

Five points has to be the Red Army's aim for start of season

It's a fresh-looking start to the PRO14 season and with Treviso first up at Irish Independent Park, Munster must look for the maximum from Round 1.

The Italians have strengthened well ahead of 2017-18 - Marty Banks and Nasi Manu are two standouts, and they should be more competitive.

But if this game took place later in the campaign it would be seen as a potential five-pointer for Munster and that's the way they must approach this weekend.

The first game back is always tricky. Players aren't used to the combinations yet, especially where there has been a big turnover in pre-season. Even when you take that into account, Munster still have their experienced back-bone, and they will be too strong for their Italian counterparts this evening.

Bigger tests await with the visit of the Cheetahs, and then the back-to-back trips to Ospreys and Glasgow in the weeks to come, so it's crucial Munster take the most they can from this tie.

This is a Treviso side who only finished four points off bottom last season, and even though their squad has been overhauled, they must be put to the sword.

Munster will take their time to win the game first and then secure a bonus point with some tougher tests on the horizon.

Irish Independent

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