Johann van Graan has been in situ long enough to know what’s expected of his Munster team and he’s very familiar with the questions that come when the men in red fail to hit the mark.
This is the 11th season since Munster won a trophy, a whole generation of players has come and gone without tasting the success they were reared on in the south in the 2000s.
Every year, another handful retire or leave with the frustration of not ending the long wait.
JJ Hanrahan and James Cronin are gone to France, Billy Holland and CJ Stander have retired and all three represent different strands of the same story.
Stander’s legacy won’t be tarnished by the lack of silver; he kept the show on the road single-handedly at times. Holland was a stalwart who played above himself so often, Hanrahan is the embodiment of lost potential.
Losing Cronin to Biarritz, however, looks like a strategic mistake.
This season will see Van Graan become the province’s second longest-serving coach behind Declan Kidney.
Before he was appointed, coaching instability was highlighted as a key contributing factor behind Munster’s inability to secure honours but they’ve been hearing the same voice for four years now.
In season, their results have been consistent but they’re no closer to getting over the finish line.
The end of the 2019/’20 season and last year’s campaign were damaging; in particular the performances in defeat to Leinster in the PRO14 play-offs.
Losing RG Snyman was a major blow, but still there was no accounting for the limited game-plan at the Aviva Stadium last September or being blown off the park at the RDS in March.
When they finally got over the line against their bitter rivals, they fluffed their lines in the Rainbow Cup by losing at home to Connacht.
That opened the door for Benetton to win the trophy, joining Ospreys, Leinster, Glasgow Warriors, Connacht, Cardiff and Scarlets on the list of PRO12 teams who’ve won a trophy since Munster last did.
In Europe, they lost an entertaining shoot-out to the eventual champions Toulouse and there was no shame in that.
Unfortunately, the attacking ambition on show that day deserted them as the campaign went on to the point where there is a fear that Munster lack a clear playing identity.
That’s an indictment of Van Graan and his high-profile assistants, but too often the focus at Munster has been on the coaching group when it is the players themselves who have underperformed.
In the PRO14 final, it was young gun Gavin Coombes who carried the fight at the RDS as more experienced men wilted. The sight of Peter O’Mahony refusing to talk to a referee in one late-season game was concerning, Van Graan needs his senior leaders to be positive influences.
This year, he will be surrounded by younger players as the recent influx of quality prospects continues and it is these young men who will carry Munster’s hopes this season.
Van Graan needs Craig Casey to kick on and challenge Conor Murray, Jack Crowley to show why Ronan O’Gara wanted him so badly. Coombes to go up a level as Alex Kendellen breaks through, Thomas Ahern to stay injury-free and props Keynan Knox, Roman Salanoa and Josh Wycherley to establish themselves.
Finally getting Snyman on the pitch would help, while his fellow Springbok Jason Jenkins needs to have an instant impact.
Behind the scrum, Simon Zebo’s arrival and a good run of fitness from Joey Carbery will soup up a backline that will operate without Damian de Allende until December, but they need good ball and a
game-plan that asks them to do more than kick and chase.
With fans back at Thomond Park and a decent European draw to look forward to, there are reasons to be excited despite the doubts over their squad depth and ability to make up for Stander’s lost yards.
All the while, the coach’s contract will linger in the background as they look to end their long wait. Until they do, those familiar questions remain. .