James Clancy goes through the season ahead for Munster Rugby, he looks at the players that have left and the players that have been brought along with a new coach Rob Penney
A desperately disappointing defeat to Ulster in last season’s Heineken Cup quarter finals confirmed Munster’s slippage in the pecking order, and a very poor beating by the Ospreys in the Celtic League saw many of the Red Army’s senior iconic names stand down from active playing service with a shake up looking necessary.
By the standards set by the most impressive generation of rugby players Munster Rugby has ever had, last season was a disappointing one, especially due to the nature of the defeats. Also, Leinster and Ulster contesting the Heineken Cup final couldn’t have ceded Munster moods.
Tony McGahan: The Australian went back to his native country at the end of last season where the former PE teacher has taken up the position of coaching co-ordinator with the Wallabies having spent four years in as head coach of Munster Rugby. He had been involved with Munster since 2005 as defence and backs’ coach.
Tomás O’Leary: Having struggled to wrestle the scrum-half berth from Conor Murray, Cork man O’Leary decided to cross the water and join AVIVA Premiership side London Irish, signing a three-year contract at the Madejski Stadium, a contract which starts at the start of this season.
Denis Leamy: The Tipperary native hung up his playing boots at the end of the 2011-’12 season, having been forced to retire due to a long standing hip injury. A lynchpin in the trenches for the Red Army for more than ten years; the 30 year-old was a key part of the 2006 and 2008 Heineken Cup winning sides – a decider in which he scored a try as Munster beat Toulouse by three points. He was Munster’s leading try scorer for the 2007-’08 season with seven and captained the team for part of the 2010-’11 campaign in the absence of Paul O’Connell.
Mick O’Driscoll: Another of the battle hardened men in the forward trenches; “Micko” also retired at the end of last season. He enjoyed two periods with Munster, making 207 appearances for the province and played in the final of both the 2006 and 2008 Heineken Cup triumphs. He was Munster Rugby’s Player of the Year for the 2007-’08 season and was the eighth Munster player to make more than 200 appearances for the province.
Jerry Flannery: The Limerick man was another of the forwards who was forced to retire at the end of last season. The Limerick hooker, yet another of those to play a pivotal role in the Heineken Cup winning sides of 2006 and ’08 missed most of the 2010-’11 season through injury. Following another unsuccessful comeback, he was forced to bow to the inevitable and he confirmed his retirement in March of this year. His last game for Munster was in January 2011 against Ulster, in which he sustained a knee injury. He is now studying for a masters degree in Sports Performance at the University of Limerick and many he predict him to return to the Munster setup in a coaching capacity.
Lifeimi Mafi: One of the most exciting imports into the Munster set-up in recent seasons, the 30 year-old has moved on to French outfit Perpginan. The Tongan born Kiwi was nominated for Munster’s Player of the Year award for the 2007-’08 season and his centre partnership with Rua Tipoki was seen as a pivotal factor behind the Red Army’s Heineken Cup triumph that season. Considered an honorary Munsterman by the Thomond Park faithful, Mafi earned the nickname “Larry Murphy” during his time with the southern province.
Rob Penney: has been recruited as head coach from Canterbury Rugby in New Zealand. The former All Black signed a two year contract with the two-time Heineken Cup champions with Anthony Foley being kept on as forwards coach. Despite much talk that Tana Umaga would land a role with Penney’s Munster, that did not take place despite the former All Black captain interviewing for a role with the province.
James Downey: The centre has re-joined Munster for a second time having enjoyed five years at Northampton Saints with whom he played in the 2011 Heineken Cup final against home province Leinster. He is 31 years-old but has never played for Ireland at senior international level.
Casey Laulala: joins Munster from Cardiff Blues. The former All Black (he won two caps between 2004 and ’06) scored the winning try of the 2006 Super 14 final. He won the European Challenge Cup with the Blues in 2009 but has never really “done it” at the very highest level of rugby.
CJ Stander: has joined from South African franchise the Blue Bulls and will join Munster on 1st November. He has signed a two year contract. The 22 year-old trained with the Springboks in June of this year but has never made a senior appearance for his native country.
Seán Dougall: signed a one year contract with the province at the start of the 2012-’13 pre season. He has spoken of his excitement at joining the province: “The chance to train and play with the likes of David Wallace is another great opportunity and will improve aspects of my game as well as hopefully adding attributes that I never had before. To play for a team like Munster has always been an aspiration of mine. With the culture and ethos they have over there I knew it was a fantastic opportunity.” The back row has cited Richie McCaw as his biggest influence. The 22 year-old has yet to play at senior international level.
PROSPECTS/AMBITIONS FOR THE SEASON AHEAD:
On the plus side, Munster have a settled and powerful front five as well as the outside backs. A front row of du Preez, Varley/Sherry, Botha won’t step backwards much and gets around the park a bit as well. The set-pieces will be solid, especially when you consider the second row combination (Paul O’Connell and last season’s Munster Player of the Year Donnacha Ryan). There isn’t much depth there, but the starters have class.
Youngsters Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer will be looking to gain experience in the engine room of the front row.
The importance of O’Connell cannot be overstated. Whilst he’s increasingly prone to injury, when fit he’s still the best lock in Europe. Munster need him to be available with greater frequency. His offer to stand down as Munster captain has come as a surprise but, captain or not, he is a huge leader for the Red Army.
In the back three, Denis Hurley will get a chance to nail down the 15 shirt before Jones returns, and Simon Zebo will look to add more defensive solidity and greater nuance to his explosive attacking game. Howlett is the elder statesman, but he has value to add as the master of on-pitch defensive positioning – he has so much to teach the likes of Zebo and Luke O’Dea, one expects Howlett to thrive in his new role as club captain.
If Conor Murray finds his form of the first half of last season at scrum half and CJ Stander gives the backrow the power jolt it needs, then the only question mark is over Ronan O’Gara who suffered a dramatic dip in form late in the season – though his early season form was very good.
PREDICTIONS FOR THE SEASON AHEAD:
Overall, Munster will expect to emerge from a Heineken Cup Pool which includes Saracens and Racing Metro. Reaching the semi final would be a major achievement. The Red Army’s best chance of silverware is the Pro 12, though the overall inexperience of the side means they are unlikely to reach the final of either of the two major competitions this season.