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Half-term report: Munster sitting pretty

Our verdict on the season so far for Rob Penney’s men, who lead the Pro12 and their Heineken Cup pool.

Paul O'Connell and his teammates celebrate the win away to Perpignan.
Paul O'Connell and his teammates celebrate the win away to Perpignan.
Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

FOLLOWING THEIR 22-16 win over Connacht last night, Munster are at the half-way point of their season, meaning now is as good a time as any to reflect on how things have gone so far in Rob Penney’s second campaign at the helm.

The results have been impressive, but there are still critics and the Kiwi’s future is undecided. Let’s take a closer look at their season so far.

Overall record

Won 13, Lost 2.

Munster are top of the Pro12 by eight points and have a five-point lead at the peak of Pool 6 in the Heineken Cup. Based purely on results, this has been an excellent season for the southern province so far.

High point

Undoubtedly the stunning last-gasp win away to Perpignan in Europe. Tommaso Benvenuti’s 78th minute try looked to have sealed the victory for the Catalans, but Munster somehow found a way. Denis Hurley and Tommy O’Donnell deserve huge credit for their parts in the winning try, while JJ Hanrahan’s lightning-fast sidestep was a moment of genius.

An astoundingly dramatic win.

image

©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Low point

The defeat away to Edinburgh in the first round of Heineken Cup action was very, very poor. A week after physically dominating Leinster in a Pro12 win, Penney’s men looked complacent and unfocused in a sloppy performance at Murrayfield. The handling errors were rife, Edinburgh won the majority of collisions and Hanrahan’s infamous chip kick resulted in a conceded try.

That loss put Munster’s backs to the wall immediately in Europe.

Try of the season so far

We hate to be predictable but… go to the 2.05 mark in this video.

YouTube credit: Rugby TV

Player of the season so far

Sean Dougall. The openside flanker has developed into a key man in recent months having added an extra physical dimension to his game during pre-season. That additional power over the ball has resulted in his existing fetching skills coming to the fore, and providing Munster with excellent security at attacking rucks too.

The 24-year-old has shown awareness around the pitch in offering intelligent supporting lines and his line-out work has stood out too. There are still refinements to be made to Dougall’s tackling, but that is nit-picking on a man who has been superb for Munster so far in this campaign.

Breakthrough talent

James Cronin has been superb for Munster this season, having started six games and appeared off the bench in seven others. His ball carrying has been explosive and his scrummaging aggressive. The 23-year-old is also a technically strong tackler, bursting in low on the attackers’ legs and bringing them to deck swiftly.

image

©INPHO/James Crombie

Dave Kilcoyne would have expected to spend the season as undisputed first-choice with Munster following the departure of Wian du Preez, but Cronin has determinedly set about ensuring that has not been the case. The young Cork man’s excellent form, including an impressive performance against Perpignan in France, make him a viable starter in 2014.

Playing style

It’s time to move on from this discussion with regards to Munster. Penney’s preference for spreading the ball wide, even if it is sometimes through lateral running in midfield and wide channels, is now ingrained and it’s not going to change any time soon.

There are many different ways to break down a defence other than running straight over the top of it. Penney’s attacking model places great stress on defenders by creating lots of one-on-ones across the defensive line, a situation that most defence coaches would rather avoid.

Without the ball, Munster have been strong, conceding just 10 tries in the Pro12 so far. Their line speed is generally quite aggressive, but Anthony Foley does prefer solid organisation to over-committing to the rush. A penchant for conceding penalties inside their own half might need to be addressed.

One thing to work on in 2014

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©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

We have come around to Penney’s possession-based plan for success and it does appear that the players are fully committed to their coach , and how he wants to play. One tiny tweak we would love to see is the straightening up of the second last man in attack, or at least more switches off the wing once the ball is getting too close to the touchline.

Seeing Munster get tackled into – or throwing passes into – touch is frustrating, and while it’s happening less, there is still room for improvement.

Marks out of 10

Seven. It’s been a good first half to the season overall for Munster, but nothing has been achieved in truth. While the win away to USAP leaves them well-positioned in the group stages of the Heineken Cup, the impression is that Pool 6 is not of the relatively highest standard.

League results have of course been excellent, and it would not be surprising to see Munster top the regular season table, but it is the play-off fixtures that really decide how their season will be judged.

The comforting thing is that Munster have delivered under pressure already this season, with wins over Leinster, Perpignan and the Scarlets suggesting that Penney’s side have the bottle to come out on top of tight games.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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