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What would a Pro12 title mean for Anthony Foley's Munster?

It’s four years since Munster last claimed silverware, and it’s time for their young stars to make their mark.

WHEN MUNSTER LAST lifted silverware, the old guard were still hanging on.

Anthony Foley Silverware in Anthony Foley's first year would signify a major development. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The 2011 Magners League final win against Leinster was a blend of Heineken Cup veterans used to winning, and kids breaking through.

Conor Murray’s first Munster start had come just three months previous, current captain Peter O’Mahony was in his first full season but didn’t make the final and Felix Jones was yet to establish himself in the side after an injury plagued couple of seasons with the province.

Of the 15 that started the 19 – 9 win in May 2011, nine have either retired or moved on. You can round it up to 10 with the impending departure of Paul O’Connell, while Donncha O’Callaghan’s role in the team has changed dramatically in the past two seasons.

Anthony Foley’s debut season in charge may have resulted in a sobering exit in the pool stages of the Champions Cup, but the consistency of performances in the league, marked by his decision to place a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the new generation in the squad bodes well for the future.

When club captain Peter O’Mahony has been injured, Foley has called on Felix Jones and Conor Murray to skipper the side, and with more experienced players often on the pitch it’s been a clear sign that the Munster coach is making sure his younger generation step up and lead the team.

The Champions Cup exit was a major setback, but perspective is needed. Munster underperformed badly at home against Clermont, but still had enough chances to win that game. That one result swung the group and was enough to cost them qualification.

Indeed, the fact that Clermont and Saracens both progressed to the semi-final shows the strength of that pool as a whole, and the knee-jerk reactions to elimination were more than excessive.

After a poor start to the league, losing two of their opening four games, both of which came at home, Munster have found that consistency the longer the season has developed.

Rodney Ah You tackled by CJ Stander Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Just one Pro12 defeat since the New Year’s Day loss to Connacht has seen them through to this Saturday’s final, and a first league double over Leinster in six years has given the Thomond Park faithful something to brag about after continuous defeats in Dublin.

In O’Mahony, Murray and Jones, Foley has three strong leaders, while the likes of CJ Stander, Tommy O’Donnell, Dave Kilcoyne, Dave Foley, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo are either in the prime of their careers, or on the way to finding it.

Mike Sherry’s injuries left Foley staring at a potential hooking crisis, yet Duncan Casey has been one of his most consistent performers in his first full season in the squad. Add to that the impending arrival of All Black Francis Saili, and with it a much greater attacking threat in the backline.

A win on Saturday also has the potential to help mend the attendance problem that has been all too evident in Thomond Park this season. Even including the season ticket holders who failed to show – of which it appears there have been many – the average league attendance at Thomond Park has been just over 16,000.

Taking away the capacity crowd that watched the win over Leinster in December, that figure drops even further, and it’s been the only league match that’s brought in more than 20,000 punters.

The problem isn’t that Limerick has lost its passion for rugby, far from it. It’s still a rugby mad city, and arguably more than it ever was, but four years in transition have taken their toll on the fans, many of whom have hopped off the bandwagon.

The Ulster and Munster teams observe a minute's silence in memory of Jack Kyle and David McCormick 17,101 people turned out to see the inter-provincial win over Ulster in late November. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A win this Saturday in Belfast may not bring a sell-out crowd to Thomond for the visit of a Zebre or Dragons side next season, but it may just throw another couple of thousand season tickets onto the total. The prospect of seeing a young side in a winning habit may even entice them to fill their seat more regularly.

There’s only so long a team can continue to be in transition, and it’s time for Anthony Foley’s side to forget about the past and create their own history.

– First published 12.22, 27 May

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About the author:

Neil Treacy

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