Friday 15 December 2017

Munster's vision can now emerge through the clouds

Munster's Simon Zebo. Photo: Sportsfile
Munster's Simon Zebo. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Those of us have followed Munster's season closely feel as if it has encapsulated much more than merely eight months and 28 matches.

On occasion, if it has seemed like embracing a lifetime, then that is perhaps because sadly it did. For this squad and staff to be then husbanded all the way to the doorstep of a Champions Cup final that they hadn't threatened to darken in two seasons - not to mention a home semi-final in league combat - is nothing short of remarkable.

As Simon Zebo says, this must not be a full stop; it is merely a comma, a punctuation mark to allow them pause and take breath before embarking once more.

The turning of the blank page remains theirs to author.

Even without the tragedy that has framed their daily, often hourly, professional lives from the aborted opening day of their European campaign, to appear in a record 12th semi-final represents a superb achievement.

Few, if any, predicted they would defeat the reigning champions and those soothsayers were, for once, vindicated; Saracens are simply a much better side, possessed of greater experience and a broader range of quality in most positions.

Munster's mission, accelerated by their energising run to the last four in this campaign, is to ensure that they will have broader options next season so their breadth of vision can be maintained.

To gain perspective on the field, they will do so off it, too.

Rassie Erasmus knows all this; plunged into an unimaginable maelstrom last October, his insistence on clarity and certainty hauled so many of his colleagues through the other side and gave them the simple platform to excel.

Emotion, at first, and then stunningly executed simplicity allowed them to prosper; the darkest autumn had naturally extinguished the smallest chinks of light in what all down south had viewed as the beginning of an expressive approach.

Scroll back 12 months, and to Anthony Foley and Munster's desperate scrap to qualify for the Champions Cup, and the remarkably brave call to select play-maker Johnny Holland for nerve-gnashing tests.

Holland responded in kind; his vision and intuition in those late, nervy weeks countered the anxiety of everyone on the other side of the white line; his retirement remains a huge blow to Munster.

Foley had wanted JJ Hanrahan to stay and, after brief exile, the Kerry man offers a similar breadth of vision in a play-making role, removing the burden from Tyler Bleyendaal, who struggled beneath the pressure against Saracens.

Outside him, the startling development of Rory Scannell, soon to be capped, will continue its breathless pace.

At scrum-half, where cover this season has been compromised by serious injury, adding to Conor Murray's late season complications, James Hart's signing also offers the type of game that, if his Grenoble evidence is accurate, can aid a more expansive style.

Chris Farrell, too, will be a perfect replacement for Jaco Taute in midfield; a barn-storming bruiser but also a player who likes to free his hands to off-load rather than submitting eternally to the floor upon each contact.

Retaining Francis Saili, if possible, will also be another statement of intent.


Anyone looking for other portents would have enjoyed being in Irish Independent Park on Friday night as Munster's young A side recovered from 18-0 down against Jersey to win the B&I Cup; the decisive, dazzling late try from Alex Wooton is already a viral sensation.

Munster's game-plan had already been designed to further evolve from last summer, as Erasmus detailed on his first appearance in Munster uniform.

"We are taking those great things from the past and saying that the game has also moved on. We can't win the same as 2006 or 2008 because it's different people, different personalities.

"But it's about not losing those things that made them great. It's a new era. The game has changed from last year, since I played, since the great Munster teams played.

"Every year it evolves and we want to be the cutting edge when it comes to that."

That vision, so suddenly restricted by the immediacy of merely having to exist from day-to-day once October came, remains firmly embedded within the squad as they already begin to plot a course towards retaining their place back where they belong, amongst Europe's elite.

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