Monday 18 November 2019

'No sun until 8am! I'm trying not to complain' - Stephen Larkham insists he's in it for long haul at Munster

Stephen Larkham only has eyes for the ball at training in UL. Photo: Sportsfile
Stephen Larkham only has eyes for the ball at training in UL. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

He is feeling the winter chill in his skinny bones even if his dress betrays the fact.

A red baseball cap and knee-length shorts protecting a pair of tanned legs, Stephen Larkham's bouncing frame seems more suited to Bondi than Castletroy as he puts his new Munster charges through their paces.

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It is week six and while his side are getting hotter on match days, he is getting colder. "It's 31 degrees back home," he shivers.

He took a trip home to surprise his family recently - they will arrive here for good shortly - and returned to a different country.

"No sun until 8am! Everyone keeps warning me about how bad it is going to get. I'm trying not to complain."

The gilded, gliding player who helped Australia win the 1999 World Cup is now charged with transforming a side renowned for having the meanest defence in Europe but arguably the most toothless attack.

The initial signs are broadly encouraging. Even though he references the fact that Munster average seven tries a game in Irish Independent Park, for example, he does concede their attack game needed refining, if not re-defining.

The number of tries scored in the first five rounds does not paint an accurate picture of the incipient improvements but the quality does - and the intentions have been overtly positive.

His old Wallaby mucker John Mulvihill had expected the same old Munster in Cardiff last weekend but was surprised when the men in red produced a try-fest to nab a 33-25 win.

"I was surprised too," admits Larkham, if even pleasantly. "There are aspects of our game in attack which we know needs improving.

"And we have taken a couple of more steps forward last weekend, particularly in terms of transferring the ball in our own half.

"There was a good feeling of the game in how to control the ball and I think our guys certainly shifted the ball and found space in parts of that game.

"There are other elements that aren't there yet but we are working on that. So there were elements that surprised me too. It was a pretty good performance.

"We scored some good tries in pretty poor positions from all over the park in awful conditions. Look at any team's attack. You want to come across as unpredictable but also dangerous, whether you're five minutes from your own line or five minutes from the opposition line."

Much of the debate swirling around Irish rugby since the World Cup has centred around style and whether this country has the necessary talent to play the type of game once exemplified by Larkham and his wonderful Wallabies.

"I've been really impressed with the players in this first five rounds," he demurs. "I think the talent, the skill level over here is probably better than it is in Australia.

"The conditions are completely different so you have to be conscious of what your conditions are as well.

"Honestly, I was very impressed with the skill levels of these players. I'm not saying Irish players, I'm saying Munster players.

"Their skill levels are good and their ability to learn things is definitely better than some Australian players."

Australia, under Michael Cheika, exited the last World Cup with an almost too slavish devotion to an expansive game which was swallowed up by England in the last eight.

Larkham was once Cheika's assistant before being unceremoniously dumped earlier this season. Decamping to the northern hemisphere might seem like a backward step.

For him however, like the Munster players absorbing excitingly vibrant new messages, this is a journey of self-discovery.

"At some stage I would," he says when asked about a putative future in charge of the Wallabies.

"It's not necessarily a stepping stone though. I am enjoying the challenge here and I have no plans to leave. I'm not thinking about the future after Munster."

Larkham has an easy manner but a steely attitude.

With a host of international stars set to return for the weekend visit of Munster, ahead of four pre-Christmas European pool games, the coach is clear.

"If they'd shown a bad attitude after the World Cup, they wouldn't be playing this week."

A mild warning on a cold evening in Munster.

Irish Independent

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