Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Munster Woes

Watching Munster last Saturday night was disturbingly hard for a huge rugby fan like me as their play off hopes took another blow in Wales. It was an all too familiar tail for Munster's management team this season as their bright opening descended into another error strewn and sometimes rudderless display.

Game plan 

Rob Penney talked when he was appointed in June about creating a "new Munster". He never really out lined in detail his plans in detail but for me every successful team in the professional era have had a number of similarities.

1) A dominant pack.
2) A solid set piece
3) A goal kicker in and around the 85 percent mark off the tea.

After this successful teams deviate. The fly half echoes the coaches philosophy on the field and allows the management's game plan to be carried out by the rest of the team by the way in which they play their game on the field, whether it be Johnny Wilkinson carrying out Woodward's kicking orientated game plan or Johnny Sexton implementing Schimdt's running style of play.

Lost in translation 

When Penney said he wanted to create a new Munster we knew it was going to involve the men in red embracing some variation of the Canterbury style. Thus far, Munster have definitely played a more expansive game plan then last season (not hard) with more emphasis on offloading and quick ball. The Canterbury game is based on the aforementioned similarities in successful teams (a.k.a the traditional Munster values ) and a scrum half, fly half and inside centre who are as happy to run, kick or pass and carry the ball multiple times in phases which normally results in their three quarters having space and time to finish of try scoring opportunities.

For the most part Munster's "traditional values" are decent. Their line out is good without being amongst the elite, the scrum solid and both flyhalf's kicking from the tea has been good. On the other hand Munster's transition to Penney's philosophy has been turbulent. Connor Murray has tuned his game in and is suiting the Penney style as he is a capable kicker, runner and passer. The majority of the problems in Munster's back play have occurred in the ten and twelve channels. O Gara seems to be ignoring Penney's game plan as he kicks for territory more often then not. Considering this and his inability to break it is strange Penney hasn't started Keatley more often. His two starts at ten in the Heineken Cup have resulted in bonus point wins, albeit against poor opposition.

 Keatley has impressed a lot of people, but for me his Munster career is at something of a tipping point. If he doesn't start versus Quinns in April it is hard to ever see him being fully trusted by Penney. Keatley will be  twenty six a week before the quarter final so it is unlikely he will improve too much from now on. The player those have a lot going for him, he is solid place kicker, good passer and  has an eye for a gap along with the pace to get him through it. He is also good at appearing multiple teams during a phase but sometimes he runs latterly too much and can get caught in possession resulting in a penalty or a turnover.


It is a frustrating time for Munster's fans because on paper they do have a solid front five, a dynamic back row and a really exciting back three. The ten - twelve axis has been source of much of the frustration as Munster long for the O Gara Halstead combination of 2006 and the O Gara Mafi combination of 2008. New signing James Downey has flattered to decieve. His straight running and offloading were a familiar sight in Franklins Gardens but so far he has failed to make ground on a regular basis and rarely managed to keep the ball alive in the tackle either. Behind Downey is JJ Hanrahan who has looked good when playing but has seen little game time and you feel he needs a bit of physical development before he can be thrust into team on a regular basis. Penney's hands are tied to an extent so I'd imagine a player who can cover ten and twelve is high on Munster's target list this summer. One element of a New Zealand style game plan Munster have consistently used this season is, ironically one of the most frustrating for fans. The second row on the wing is often used in New Zealand mainly because their locks are so dynamic and powerful they can make inroads down the touch line without being bundled into touch by wingers, giving enough time to the forwards to support them and recycle the ball and thus changing the point of attack. Donnacha O Callaghan has been trying out this role a lot more then the more dynamic Donnacha Ryan  this season. It has resulted in him popping up on the wing regularly. Sadly for Munster, Donnacha O Callaghan is no Brad Thorn and tends to either knock on, step into touch or be turned over. On the odd occasion he finds himself in acres of space,  he is without the speed to make much ground.


Penney first season in charge so far is hard to judge, qualification from the group stage of the Heineken Cup was vital to keep the fans on his side and gave him some much needed breathing space but the general performance has been quite poor. It will take time for Penney to shape his squad, Cj Stander being his only signing to date and  has looked very exciting. Unexpected retirements to Leamy and to a lessor extent Wallace and Flannery has left Munster, along with the injury to Paul O Connell a little short in experience in the pack. This could be influencing Penney's decision to stick with O Gara and Downey but for me he may have to twist rather then stick for progress on the field this season.

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