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Half-term report: Munster lead the way for the Irish provinces

Anthony Foley’s side have been strong in the Pro12 and are still alive in Europe.

Overall record

Played 15, Won 10, Lost 4 [third in Pro12, third in Pool 1 of Champions Cup].

High point

The Champions Cup victory over Saracens in Limerick was satisfying, but Anthony Foley’s men can’t look beyond their pair of wins over Leinster as the highlights of the season so far.

Peter O'Mahony celebrates at the end of the match Peter O'Mahony celebrates a superb win in Dublin. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ending the drought in Dublin was important, while the 34-23 scoreline in that first meeting was an accurate reflection of Munster’s superiority. Conor Murray bossed the attack and Paul O’Connell led an incredibly aggressive defensive effort.

Back at Thomond Park this month, the game plan was remarkably similar and once again Leinster had no answer.

Low Point

We’re never short of reminders that teams simply cannot lose their home games in Europe if they are to advance to the knock-out stages. While that may not prove to be the case in his season’s Champions Cup, Munster’s defeat to Clermont at Thomond Park was a blow.

The French side were excellent with their Munster-esque tactics, Foley’s side will still have some frustration around their own performance levels, however. The set-piece struggled, the attack was blunt and there was some poor kicking too.

Try of the season so far

Munster haven’t scored from long-range too often this season, but the sublime team effort finished by Robin Copeland against Ulster in October stands out. Go to the 36:35 mark in the video below to review the score.

Source: Rugby for All/YouTube

Duncan Casey’s accurate throw starts the passage, with Billy Holland feeding the ball off the top to Duncan Williams. CJ Stander is used as the first-up carrier, before Williams runs a clever arc to release Ronan O’Mahony inside him.

A word too for the rucking of Copeland and Denis Hurley to open that space on the fringe of the ruck for Williams and O’Mahony. Similarly, Holland and BJ Botha do enough to remove the jackaling threat of Rory Best at the next breakdown.

From there, Ian Keatley pops to Hurley, who gets his hands through the tackle to offload to Copeland. Three phases, 27 seconds, textbook teamwork.

Player of the season so far

CJ Stander’s first two seasons with Munster were not quite what the South African might have hoped for, as he struggled to convince Rob Penney that he was a Heineken Cup starter.

CJ Stander scores a try after losing his jersey Stander has a knack for crossing the tryline. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

However, this campaign has seen the 24-year-old step into a more prominent role under Anthony Foley, even if there is still progress to be made. Stander’s abrasive, physical approach has won him many fans and he appears ideally suited to how Munster are playing at present.

Despite the arrival of Robin Copeland to provide competition, Stander has been superb at number eight or on the blindside.


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Breakthrough talent

Duncan Casey established himself with seven starts in the 2013/14 season, but it’s been the current campaign in which we have seen the full extent of his ability. The former Glenstal student has been excellent at hooker throughout.

Duncan Casey supported by Dave Foley Casey has stepped up at hooker impressively. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Technically superb, with some of the best darts in the country, the 24-year-old has also imposed himself physically against the likes of Saracens and Clermont.

Damien Varley and Mike Sherry will have quite the task in attempting to wrestle the number two shirt back from Casey when they return to fitness.

Playing style

Munster’s opening months of the season have seen them predominantly set up with a narrow focus in attack, playing around Murray’s strengths. They have kicked the ball often, although much of that kicking is highly contestable.

Their mauling has been a strength at times, even if they will look for more consistency in that area. Generally, the impression has been that Munster are not focused on taking too many risks with their possession, as they regularly exit their half swiftly using the boot.

However, the introduction of JJ Hanrahan at inside centre away to Clermont brought a new element, providing Munster a passing hub in midfield and allowing them to challenge in wider channels.

One thing to work on in 2015

Paul O'Connell and the Munster players walk off the pitch dejected after the game Munster's previously proud home record has taken a few dents this season. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Herein, we essentially continue the point above.

Munster must continue to add variety to their game plan in the manner we saw at Stade Marcel-Michelin. It wasn’t all about JJ though; from forwards tipping on short passes or releasing the ball out the back door to their backline, there were lots of interesting parts to that performance.

Foley possesses as shrewd a rugby brain as any coach in Ireland and will be aware that allowing his side to become too predictable would be ruinous.

Marks out of 10?

Riding high in the Pro12, but in a weak position in Pool 1 of the Champions Cup after back-to-back defeats to Clermont, we’re giving Munster a seven.

It hasn’t always been pretty to watch, but a handful of superb performances show that Foley’s troupe have the quality to compete for a league trophy at the very least.

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Murray Kinsella

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