Rugby Nerds Look At Ulster And Munster Ahead Of The New Season
Munster 2013/14 Season Preview
Let’s get the ugly stuff out of the way first. Munster’s PRO12 campaign last season was bad. Really bad. All the headlines and highlights went to the other competition with little left to cheer in the league. A brief glance over some of the Munster stats makes for grim reading:
- Missing the playoffs for the first time since they were re-introduced
- Finishing closer on the table to Connacht (16pts) than Leinster (24pts) or Ulster (27pts)
- 50% win rate
- Just 2 wins and a draw from the 10 games against the teams that finished above them
- Only doing the double over Zebre, Edinburgh and Connacht
Compounded by drubbings in Glasgow and Treviso and then having to watch Scarlets have their bellies tickled in the semi-finals, it was a league to forget. Transition and gameplan were the most (over)used words in relation to Munster last season but the crux of it was they frequently didn’t play very well.
But enough of the bad stuff. Like every sports fan the world over, in the days proceeding the start of a new season I’m incredibly optimistic about the new campaign. A year into Project Penny, a greater level of clarity and comfort seemed to be developing towards the end of last season in the big games. Now a greater level of consistency is the requirement.
Nothing to see here….
Okay, back up the truck. The King is dead, long live the King. With Jonny Sexton’s boss not around anymore out of ROG’s shadow need to come Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan. O’Gara had his peaks and troughs last season but saved his troughiest moments for the league (home to Blues and away to Scarlets come to mind). In that sense his retirement won’t be so keenly felt, at least initially. Keatley has had a couple of decent seasons as understudy, with strong place kicking stats and a growing influence. His physical presence, pace and strength at the gainline are well suited to Rob Penny’s plans, either fixing defenders or exploiting gaps himself. He can be erratic though and was present for plenty of Munster’s off days last term (the service he was received was an issue as well).
The other out-half is of course JJ Hanrahan. The (over?) hyped 21-year-old spent most of last season with the A’s but after ROGs retirement will be thrust firmly forward as back-up 10. Undoubtedly talented he looks to have the skills required of a modern out-half. He’s likely to be heavily exposed this year at both 10 and 12, it’s going to be a huge season for the young man.
One thing is for certain, Munster will be heavily reliant on the fitness of Keatley and Hanrahan.
Munster have good depth in certain positions; the third choice lock will be a 90-odd cap international, 5 different back-rowers started HCup games last season all of whom are still around (plus CJ Stander), a plethora of options and combinations are possible for a back 3 from Conway, Hurley, Jones, Zebo, O’Dea, Murphy, O’Mahony (Ronan not Peter) and new signing Gerhard van den Heever.
In other positions the story is altogether different. As mentioned, half-back looks shallow. At loosehead, the release of Wian du Preez leaves Munster thin at Number 1. David Kilcoyne had a great season last time, becoming one of the squads most important carriers and more than holding his own in the scrum. But its only in his second season as first choice and he will be away with Ireland most likely. Next in line at the moment is James Cronin who is making his first ever league start next Saturday. Beyond that the conversion of John Ryan to a dual sided prop is the next option. A serious injury to Kilcoyne could prove disastrous.
At scrum-half there is a sizable gulf between Conor Murray and the rest and with Murray to be saved for Ireland and HCup duty, the onus is on Sheridan, Williams and Hurley to provide better support for the 10s than was seen at times last season.
Several fringe players will be trying to (finally) make their mark after years on the outskirts of the squad. It’s nearly 3 years since his man-of-the-match performance against Australia but in the intervening years Ian Nagle (24) has still only had only fleeting runs in the team. Retained as his contract ran out, there is clearly faith in him from the coaches. Centre Ivan Dineen impressed at the end of last season and at 26 years old it would be timely for him to take some of the league strain from James Downey. Twenty eight year old Gerry Hurley has been brought in from AIL as cover in the contentious scrum-half position.
Munster missed 4th place by 8 points last season and looking at some of the loses (home and away to Scarlets, home to Cardiff, away to Dragons) that should be a bridgeable gap and Munster should make their way back into the playoff spots. A few more wins in the derbies wouldn’t go amiss either.