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Larkham enthusiastic about Munster's attack progress as Racing come to town

The Australian has made a positive impact since joining during the summer.

WE’RE NOT SURE exactly what the All Blaas tag rugby team expected when they were preparing for a new season but it can’t have included facing legendary former Wallabies out-half Stephen Larkham.

But there was the man who is now Munster’s senior coach for their fixture on Monday night down in Garryowen FC, with Larkham having linked up with some of the province’s backroom staff to keep fit and continue to enjoy the game.

“I don’t know if they knew me but we shook hands at the end of the game and they all had a smile on their face,” says Larkham of how the All Blaas reacted to his presence.

stephen-larkham-and-billy-holland-celerbate Larkham after last weekend's win over the Ospreys. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“I had never played tag before, so I’m still learning. There are some freaks out there, we haven’t played against any of the really good players yet.

“But our team played the grand final two weeks ago and won. It’s like Division Z or something, so it’s not super competitive. If you’ve only got one reserve, you’re pretty shagged at the end of the game. If you’ve two, you’re not too bad.”

Getting stuck into tag rugby is part of Larkham’s ongoing settling-in process in Munster but he’s already starting to feel at home with his family in their new base in Limerick.

With Munster’s players already speaking positively about the Aussie’s impact on their attacking play and technical skills, it’s clear that Larkham has taken to his new job with ease too.

There have been hints of development in Munster’s attack early this season. They only offloaded eight times against the Ospreys in last weekend’s Champions Cup win and went to their reliable maul to secure the bonus-point, but fans of the southern province would have been encouraged by the attacking display.

Seeing loosehead prop Jeremy Loughman fling an accurate pass from left-to-right for Andrew Conway’s clinical turnover try or Niall Scannell offloading with aplomb will have excited many of them.

“Jeremy is unique because he had the skill set before he got here,” says Larkham. “He is someone who will work on his skills.

“We are encouraging all of the players to work on their skills. Do we need them all to throw a 20-metre pass out in front of a 13 running onto it? Not necessarily, but he just had that skill set. He’s an extremely talented player.

jeremy-loughman-with-scott-otten Jeremy Loughman's skills have impressed Larkham. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We want to make sure that they have all got the basic skills though and that they are making skills that are in front of them.

“We do want them to keep their eyes up and make a small decision but there should be a little decision that they are making every time they touch the ball.

“That’s what we have worked on in the training sessions and then our systems have to replicate that, that we have options on both sides of the ruck and that everyone is a genuine threat across the park.”

Larkham seems genuinely enthusiastic and perhaps even a tad surprised at the skill levels he has found in the Irish players at Munster.

Maybe the perception in other parts of the world is that Irish players are not as skilled as those in the Southern Hemisphere, but Larkham is keen to dispel what he sees as a myth in highlighting the quality he has to work with.

“I feel that the Irish are a little bit more skillful than the Australian players,” says the 45-year-old, who was the Wallabies’ attack coach from 2015 until earlier this year.

“I’m not lying when I say that, the guys pick things up really quickly here.

“I’m just looking at Niall Scannell here – he is one of the most skillful hookers I have ever seen and his work-rate is second to none, just as a little example.

“The guys here are very educated. They can come into a meeting, listen to what I have to say, and then they go and put it on the park straight away. That’s been really refreshing.”

stephen-larkham Larkham joined Munster as senior coach during the summer. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

As such, Larkham underlines that he is not attempting to rip up what Munster have been doing in attack in recent seasons, but rather add the little details that can make a big difference.

“I guess what we are really trying to work on here is not changing the whole system because the system actually worked pretty well last year,” says Larkham.

“It’s making sure that we are a little bit refined in certain areas. We know when we come up against the big teams in the competitions, our systems need to be a little bit better.

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“If I look at our Saracens [Champions Cup] semi-final last year, we got out-kicked, our escorts weren’t good enough. They came through, put a lot of pressure on our catchers. Likewise, when we kicked to them, they caught the balls quite easily because they did a pretty good job.

“Things like that, we just need to make sure are in place for games like this weekend.”

Today’s clash with Racing 92 at Thomond Park [KO 5.30pm, BT Sport] will indeed be a sterner test of Munster’s growth after they secured their bonus point late on in Swansea last time out.

Larkham admits Munster “crammed a lot” of learning into their pre-season in terms of the attack and then needed to do “a little bit of reintroduction” with the returning Ireland internationals after the World Cup, but he is pleased with the slow and steady progress.

It’s been notable that backs like Rory Scannell and Mike Haley have increasingly been slotting in at first receiver for Munster in order to take some pressure off their out-halves and change the picture for their defence.

“It’s not necessarily important, but if our 10 is taken out [they need another player to step up] and also we don’t just want our 10 to be sitting back and directing the play,” explains Larkham.

mike-haley Mike Haley has been in excellent form for Munster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We want our 10 to be actively involved in the attack, whether that is carrying the ball or being in the breakdown. We don’t want him limited or scared to take the ball in because he’s got to set everyone else up.

“We know that if he gets taken out… it’s like a halfback [scrum-half], if the halfback gets taken out, someone else needs to be able to step into that role.

“We certainly train that but those guys certainly have that skill set that can complement what we are trying to do there.”

Amidst the green shoots, Larkham is cognisant of the fact that some games – perhaps today’s against Racing included – will call for Munster to reign in the rate of their attacking development and perhaps rely on more traditional strengths.

Larkham and head coach Johann van Graan will back their players to use the skills they believe they possess, but there is also a dash of realism to Munster’s approach.

“You look at the situation of where you are on the field,” explains Larkham. “The conditions, the current score and then you have to respect the opposition – there are a number of different factors that come into your strategy.

“And throughout the game, there will be changes in strategy too. Sometimes we will be a little bit more conservative but most of the time we are trying to encourage the players to find the space and play what is in front of them.”

All in all, these are exciting times for the Munster supporters, players and coaching staff, as Larkham’s positive philosophy in attack continues to rub off on the province. 

Munster:

15. Mike Haley
14. Andrew Conway
13. Chris Farrell
12. Rory Scannell
11. Keith Earls
10. JJ Hanrahan
9. Conor Murray

1. Jeremy Loughman
2. Niall Scannell
3. John Ryan
4. Jean Kleyn
5. Tadhg Beirne
6. Peter O’Mahony (captain)
7. Jack O’Donoghue
8. CJ Stander

Replacements:

16. Kevin O’Byrne
17. James Cronin
18. Stephen Archer
19. Billy Holland
20. Fineen Wycherley
21. Alby Mathewson
22. Dan Goggin
23. Arno Botha

Racing 92:

15. Simon Zebo
14. Teddy Thomas
13. Virimi Vakatawa
12. Henry Chavancy (captain)
11. Juan Imhoff
10. Finn Russell
9. Maxime Machenaud

1. Eddy Ben Arous
2. Camille Chat
3. Cedate Gomes Sa
4. Donnacha Ryan
5. Dominic Bird
6. Wenceslas Lauret
7. Boris Palu
8. Antoine Claassen

Replacements:

16. Teddy Baubigny
17. Hassane Kolingar
18. Ali Oz
19. Fabien Sanconnie
20. Yoan Tanga Mangene
21. Teddy Iribaren
22. Ben Volavola
23. Brice Dulin 

Referee: Matthew Carley [England].

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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