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Munster have made strides in 2020 - now they need to win something

Munster have chalked up some big wins in 2020 – but they need a trophy in 2021 to end a decade of near misses.

Craig Casey has been a big success story.
Craig Casey has been a big success story.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

IN 2014 MUNSTER produced a three-year Strategic Plan, stating in big, bold print how qualifying for the Champions Cup quarter-finals was a base requirement.

Yet for the next two seasons, they got nowhere near it. They would finish the 2015/16 season sixth in the Pro12, the lowest ranked of the four Irish provinces, their most scathing criticism coming from one of their own players. “The boys work so hard,” Francis Saili said, “but there’s no point in working hard if you’re not going to work smart. Sometimes they are like robots and stick to the structures.”

If the structure worked, you’d say fine. Yet nothing was working. This was not a team that looked set to reach three semi-finals and a final in the next two seasons, nor one that made it to the Champions Cup semi-finals in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

It’s worth remembering all this when we place 2020 in context. Munster won 14 of their 18 games in this calendar year. Will it be remembered as a vintage one? Of course not, but given where they were back in January 2016, they have come a long way.

Yet it also cannot be forgotten how the journey from being called a “borderline disgrace” that month to a team who has now won nine games in a row has also been tragically painful.

The seminal moments in this modern Munster story all happened in Paris, scene of that shocking defeat to Stade Francais, the lowest point of their rugby careers; scene of Anthony Foley’s final journey, the lowest point of their lives. It was after Foley’s sudden death at the city’s Novotel Hotel in October 2016 that the dramatic turnaround in their form began, 22 wins posted from their next 25 games. “It is unfortunate it took his death for us to play the way he wanted us to,” Keith Earls said a year later.

The Foley spirit was evident earlier this month. Big, bad Clermont were doing a number on Munster, chalking up a bonus point with just a quarter of the game gone.

Munster, though, played like the old days, tactically playing for territory, home-grown players playing for the jersey. Convincing defeats to Saracens in the 2017 and 2019 Champions Cup semi-finals, and to Racing in between, led to everyone saying there was a ceiling to where they could go.

But in Clermont a couple of weeks ago, Munster burst through the roof.

Their signings in recent years, Damian de Allende, Chris Farrell, Tadhg Beirne made significant contributions; the new home-grown guys, Craig Casey and Josh Wycherley, came of age.

damian-de-allende-scores-his-sideos-second-try Damian de Allende has been a superb signing. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It’s worth remembering that in the Stade capitulation, way back in 2016, that Foley left five of his replacements — including John Ryan — on the bench, even though his scrum spent that evening being marched backwards. A key element of Johann van Graan’s strategy is building trust as well as depth. “It’s important to state that we have a lot of quality options, whether it be number ones, twos or threes and a lot of different players have shown a lot of different strengths,” the coach has said.

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They have that to an extent. Certainly in the back-row, it’s visible. At scrum half, there is also a new reality. Where once Murray was irreplaceable, now Casey is a genuine rival. JJ Hanrahan’s performance in Clermont was brilliant but he needs to back that up time after time after time. If he doesn’t, Ben Healy should be promoted.

“We’ve signed well,” Van Graan has said.

Since the 2020/21 season began, they have played well, too. Nine wins in a row is good going and an appearance in the final of this shortened Pro14 season is theirs to throw away. Add in the fact they look like making the Champions Cup quarters on the back of that sensational win in Clermont and you can make a case for 2020 being a good year.

Yet they need a trophy in 2021.

Since they last won one in 2011, they have lost 10 semi-finals and two finals. Consistency is admirable. But silverware is now necessary.

The 2020 awards go to ….

Player of the year …..CJ Stander seriously consistent operator who deserves a bit more credit than he gets.

Breakthrough player … Craig Casey Made his European debut in January and is now a genuine alternative to Conor Murray, giving Munster a succession plan for when Murray’s days come to an end

Best moment …. Clermont – their best win since Toulon in 2018.

And the worst …..  Losing to Racing in January ended their hopes in Europe, losing to Leinster in the Pro14 semi just seemed like Groundhog Day.

– First published 08.01, 31 December

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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