THE Thomond Park atmosphere is something special and last season wasn’t quite the same without it.
Watching from the discomfort of home you could feel far removed from the action, unable to roar on the team, effectively disconnected from the Munster Rugby community.
There was a hollow feeling behind what ordinarily would have been unforgettable moments – perhaps the crowd reaction to Keith Earls’ tries against Toulouse would have spurred the team to victory, perhaps Connacht wouldn’t have dented Munster’s Rainbow Cup hopes if the Red Army were in attendance.
No doubt the players would have felt the absence of supporters but to their credit it didn’t stop them from winning 20/25 matches.
Munster lost just twice in the normal league season. Ulster got the better of an experimental Munster team in January and some wayward kicking from JJ Hanrahan saw Van Graan’s side lose 13-10 to Leinster at Thomond Park two weeks later.
Almost every PRO14 performance was professional and efficient as youngsters such as Josh Wycherley, Jack O’Sullivan, John Hodnett, Craig Casey and Ben Healy all had a big say in proceedings before Christmas. The long-standing criticism of Munster has been their shortage of ingenuity in attack but there were certainly hints towards a more intricate style of passing play at various points in the league.
Sadly, when it mattered most in the PRO14 final against Leinster, Munster failed to deliver on any of the promise they had shown against weaker opponents. That losing scoreline of 16-6 flattered Munster if anything as the province reverted to simplistic one-out-runner attack mixed with an over-reliance on Conor Murray’s box-kicking abilities.
Covid-19 fears meant Munster played just three Champions Cup matches in 2020/2021 with the highlight coming away to Clermont Auvergne where they produced without doubt the finest performance of the season. Munster played with a flavoursome variety of ballast and creativity to defeat the French giants 39-31 and reproduced a similar brand of rugby in the last sixteen defeat against eventual European champions Toulouse.
Munster were excellent that afternoon in Limerick and as much as exiting the competition at that stage doesn’t sound brilliant, in reality Munster were remarkably close to getting the better of Europe’s elite outfit.
A PRO14 final, a Champions Cup hard-luck story…the question is whether that’s as good as it gets? Does this current crop of players simply have a ceiling a level or two below the Leinsters and La Rochelle’s of this world? It’s hard to suggest so with any great confidence at this moment in time.
The thing is, Munster are now at a stage where their seasons are going to be judged on whether or not they win silverware. The signings of RG Snyman, Damian De Allende and Matt Gallagher strengthened the team significantly last Summer and the appointments of Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree to Johann Van Graan’s backroom team came as another significant boost to the province. It all indicates that Munster are good enough to go toe to toe with the best.
With names such as Tadhg Beirne, CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and Keith Earls at the heart of the team Munster always have a chance but you would have thought the influx of outstanding young talent like Gavin Coombes, Craig Casey and Shane Daly, the influence of World Cup winner Damian De Allende at inside centre and the re-emergence of Joey Carbery in the ten shirt could have elevated Munster towards ending their decade-long trophy drought.
Johann Van Graan has been supported with better resources than any Munster head coach in many a year and with that kind of backing comes great expectation. Though the South African boss may well feel proud of a relatively positive 2020/2021 season, failure to pull off big results at the business end of the season still means he has a challenge on his hands to keep Munster supporters enthused by his project in the next six to twelve months.
More running rugby, more fans in the stadium and more Simon Zebo might just help his case.
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