MUNSTER’S ATTACKING TACTICS have been perhaps the most talked about aspect of the province’s life in the last two seasons, as Rob Penney’s Canterbury-infused wide patterns were met with a mixture of praise and criticism.
In that regard, the work of new attack and backs coach Brian Walsh, a former Munster centre, will be heavily scrutinised over the course of the 2014/15 campaign. The Corkman is in his first professional coaching role, but possesses a formidable knowledge of the game and firm beliefs about how it should be played.
While it would seem that analysing Munster’s attack in the last two seasons might have been a starting point for Walsh, who spent 10 years with Cork Constitution FC, he has not looked into the past for lessons.
“To be honest, I haven’t spent a lot of time reviewing last season’s attack,” Walsh told TheScore.ie. “I don’t think that’s something I needed to start the job with. I needed to look at what I think is going to be effective for the squad that’s there and go and put that in place.
It’s not a case of coming in and saying, ‘This has been bad, this has been good, change that, do that.’ It’s looking at building a balance and finding a game that suits the squad we have and the culture, environment and psyche of Munster.
“At the same time, [we have to] make sure that we’re not one-dimensional and make sure we have the ability to attack in different areas of the park. It’s about building that game, rather than analysing what’s happened in the past.”
Prompted to highlight Munster’s attacking strengths, Walsh immediately points to the back three, name checking Simon Zebo, Andrew Conway, Gerhard van den Heever and Felix Jones.
The former Ireland Clubs coach understands the need to allow such players to thrive with ball in hand, and admits that moving towards a playmaking, passing inside centre is in his thoughts.
“Absolutely. People talk about the second-five-eighth and this, that and the other. I don’t see why somebody can’t play 12 and be a good distributor at the same time. It’s something that’s very important in the modern game if you want to play in the wider areas of the park, if you want to play at a high tempo.
You need people who can fulfill that first receiver role on an ongoing basis and slot in and out. Absolutely, JJ [Hanrahan], Keats [Ian Keatley], Tyler Bleyendaal, Johnny Holland, all these guys have that kind of potential.”
Walsh does stress, however, that such a move is not the “master plan,” rather a single component of a system that will “evolve as the season goes on.”
The one-time midfielder – who helped Munster to beat Australia at Musgrave Park in 1992 – refers repeatedly to “balance,” be it in back play, in Munster’s attacking patterns or in any other aspect of their approach.
“You need a balanced back row, you need a balanced back line,” says Walsh. “You need people who can carry the ball and be very strong in the contact areas, but you need people who are potentially better ball players and distributors.
“It’s about putting all those together and finding the best positions for people to be effective.”
Walsh stepped away from a full-time and long-term job with Bank of Ireland to become part of Munster’s coaching team this summer. He admits he wasn’t “necessarily expecting” an offer to join Anthony Foley, particularly having relinquished control of Cork Con’s senior team last season.
Walsh spent his year away from senior coaching studying rugby and speaking to those in the game whose opinions he values, while keeping himself involved with Con’s U20s and Presentation Brothers College in Cork.
The additional “freedom to do research” allowed Walsh to challenge his own views on the game, reinforcing some notions and discounting others.
I was watching rugby and interacting with other coaches, finding out if there were things out there that I could be looking at, getting to different sessions and speaking to other people,” says Walsh.
“As the game changes, you need to change yourself. I was enjoying that when this job came around. I just think that personal development is a very important part. Everything changes, everything moves on and you’ve got to challenge yourself to stay on top of that.
“You’ve got to work hard on the personal development; I don’t think anyone’s ever ‘made it,’ to a certain extent. As soon as you think you have, you’re in trouble.”
The outcome of Walsh’s timely development is a firm belief in what Munster need to do to be successful. One aspect of that is moving away from playing through the phases simply for the sake of playing through the phases.
“Look, I wouldn’t be a huge fan of the multi-phase game. I think it allows defences to get organised. I think you need to get on the front foot and stay on it, try to keep the defence as unorganised as possible.
“You’re looking at players who have the ability to manage contact well, keep the ball alive, very strong continuity skills and make very strong decision based on what’s in front of them.
You’d love to be able to play that way, and that has to be part of what we try to do. But you have to be pragmatic as well, in terms of what you have and the conditions you play in.
“We have a very clear picture of where we want to get to. It’s going to take time to get there and we will build that game over time. I think it will certainly evolve as the season goes on, but it’ll be a balanced game.
“It might be a bit more direct than it has been in the past, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be one-dimensional and narrow.”