Pro 12 Season Preview – Munster
Last season afforded Munster fans a rather unhealthy dose of reality. The realisation being that Munster are no longer a clear top side in the league. Sheer belief in themselves had allowed them to scrape a fair few close wins, other times they’d shown glimpses of their old selves and beaten their opponents well, yet too often when they were put under pressure and fell behind, their heads dropped and they were on the end of some heavy defeats, in both the league and the Heineken Cup.
This attitude in their players when going behind in a match is for me the most worrying sign of Munster’s decline. In years past that would never have happened. For me, this current Munster crop of players, with Ronan O’Gara past his best and Paul O’Connell persistently injured, are lacking in leadership. People talk about Peter O’Mahony being the next leader, but for me his temperament is still in question. Yes he puts in outstanding performances himself, but for me he doesn’t quite have the ability yet to really rally his players together as a team, as the last performance against the Ospreys showed.
Munster are now facing a stage of re-building, but I’m not sure they put the work in in their years of dominance to allow this stage to go as smoothly as it needs to. Their inability to produce home grown centres and props is a worry. Some of their star players in Earls and Murray are misfiring. Others such as Ryan and on occasion O’Mahony are proving they can make the step up but I don’t feel there are enough players that are making that step.
For me, it’s a question on whether Munster will have the belief in themselves to carry them through the tough matches of next season as they as a squad rebuild, or will the frailties exposed by teams like the Ospreys and Ulster last season continue to be targeted successfully?
Players brought in such as Laulala could prove invaluable but it is a tough prospect that new head coach Rob Penney faces to deliver the successes that will undoubtedly be demanded by the fans. In an ever competitive league, it will be a hard task for this Munster side to make it into the playoffs, and they will most likely get caught up in the scrap for the 3rd and 4th place spot.
The return of Howlett, exciting players like Zebo and Hanrahan (if he gets game time) and the grit of Ryan should be enough for them to remain in the top echelon of the league, yet victories are going to be much harder won for this squad and the real question will be can they get the attitude and belief in place to get it right on the pitch. Results at the tail end of last season indicate this will be difficult for them, but with a new coach and effectively a new beginning, Munster fans will hope that their team can put those performances behind them and get on with their re-building without the results on the pitch taking too much of a hit.
My players to watch: Casey Laulala, Peter O’Mahony, JJ Hanrahan and Niall Ronan