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Dublin: 5 °C Thursday 20 February, 2020

Your big rugby season preview: Munster

Another season of big change in the southern province, but genuine cause for excitement too.

The Story so far

ROB PENNEY’S FIRST year in charge of Munster wasn’t so much a season of two halves as a finely diced stir-fry.

The initial culture shock of the new style of play improved skill-sets, but won no hearts or minds in the province as many credited the old-school influence of Messrs O’Connell and O’Gara to pull results out of the bag when it was really needed.

A good Heineken Cup run papers over a multitude of shortcomings in any club, but that goes double in a province which has built itself from the ground up to compete in Europe.

image©INPHO/James Crombie

A shock win over top-ranked Harlequins and even a brave defeat in Clermont will form the fondest memories for fans of the southern province. There were plenty of bad days out in the Pro12 which are best forgotten.

Though Europe was their only focus in the final months of the season, finishing the campaign 12 points off the play-off spots is an accurate reflection of their domestic season. A home win over Glasgow was arguably their finest Pro12 moment, but highlights are quickly dimmed by results like Glasgow 51 -24 Munster or Treviso 34 – 10 Munster.

For a province like Munster, the only way is up.

Best try of last season

Sorry, but we couldn’t choose between these three.

The first two, early beams of hope for what could lie ahead in the Penney era. The third, individual balanced-running brilliance from Simon Zebo.

YouTube credit: EllliotJack4

YouTube credit: Tap Tackle

What’s changed

This can’t be understated. The man who has done more than any other to shape Munster’s destiny has packed his cones and bibs and headed off to France join the Racing Metro revolution.

Munster have never known a world without O’Gara and nobody at the province has come close to talking down the loss he will be.

As if losing an icon wasn’t bad enough, the captain Doug Howlett has also retired. Munster have called in two new signings to replace the All Black legend, Gerhard van den Heever and Andrew Conway. Peter O’Mahony, turning 24 this month, is named the new captain, presumably for the long-term.

Big questions

New era: The extremely obvious question is how the entire province can settle to life after ROG. Undoubtedly, he is a difficult man to deputise for so we expect to see Keatley’s confidence grow with the honour of being named first choice by Rob Penney this week.

However, the Kiwi also referred to the “blowtorch” of JJ Hanrahan itching to jump the queue. Winning or losing with a Munsterman at the wheel would appear to be a prospect most fans around the southern province find preferable to having Keatley in control, but a few wins and touchline conversions can change anybody’s mind.

Combinations: Though Penney’s expansive game-plan will be embedded this season, it’s unclear as to who exactly will be the men to play it.

image©INPHO/Billy Stickland

We’ve picked a strongest possible line-up below, but with Felix Jones, Andrew Conway and Denis Hurley nipping heels for a spot in the back three – and Sean Dougall, James Coughlan and Niall Ronan doing likewise to the back row – there are very few men who could guess the number they’ll be wearing come Heineken Cup time.

Predicted finish

Increased fitness, a settled game-plan, competition for places: All signs point to a huge improvement in league results. Munster have been able to organise a relatively handy first month in the Pro12 with a week in Italy book-ended by visits from Edinburgh and Dragons. Crucially these early home games are at Musgrave Park, where Munster endured a horrible run of form last season when playing on a heavy pitch in mid winter. Conditions now will suit them better.

Munster’s run-in is tough one on paper, but they will be pleased to have play-off rivals Glasgow and Ulster coming to Thomond before and after trips to Connacht and Edinburgh to round the regular season off.

image‘Gloucester? Pfft! we can give them a 28-point head-start.’©INPHO/Andrew Paton

The Heineken Cup draw has pitted them against Edinburgh, Perpignan and Gloucester. Although they would prefer to travel away to England early, Munster must be pleased with having Perpignan as a back-to-back opponent at the tail end of this year.

This is a very winnable group and Penney’s men will know exactly what is needed when matchday six comes in the shape of Edinburgh at a packed Thomond Park.

Pro12: Top four.

Heineken Cup: semi-finals.

Strongest XV: S Zebo; G van den Heever, C Laulala, J Downey, K Earls; I Keatley, C Murray: D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, BJ Botha; D Ryan, P O’Connell; CJ Stander , T O’Donnell, P O’Mahony.

See the other provinces previewed here

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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