The 2011/2012 season has come to a conclusion with the final round of the summer test series. While many of us will be glad to get a bit of a break from the rugby overload, many more of us will already be looking forward to next season. Now is as good a time as any to look ahead to what lies in store for Munster, now arguably Ireland’s 3rd best province.
Tony McGahan has already settled into his new role with Australia, helping them to a 3-0 series win over Wales. Munster’s new Head Coach, Rob Penney, will arrive in the province in the next few days after guiding the New Zealand U20s to a 2nd place finish at the Junior World Championship. The ex-Canterbury man is clearly aware of the task that awaits him. He went as far as admitting that it could take 5 years for Munster to return to the heights of years past.
More encouragingly for Munster fans, Penney said, “waiting five years to lift some silverware is not my preferred option.” But do Munster have the necessary components for Penney to be an instant success? Plenty of the stalwarts have moved on. David Wallace, Jerry Flannery, Denis Leamy, Mick O’Driscoll and Darragh Hurley have all called time on their careers. Meanwhile, Lifeimi Mafi, Tomas O’Leary, Denis Fogarty, Declan Cusack, Tom Gleeson and Pete Borlase have left the province for pastures new.
That’s a huge chunk of last season’s squad gone. Centres James Downey and Casey Laulala are amongst the new signings. At 31 and 30 respectively, the pair are far from hot prospects, but could offer some balancing experience if Penney looks to put faith in youth. Peter Stringer returns from his loan spells in England, and could contribute towards Conor Murray’s development. Openside Sean Dougall arrives from English Championship side Rotherham Titans. The 22-year-old is set to face strong competition in the back-row.
Perhaps the most interesting addition Munster have made to next season’s squad is CJ Stander. The back-rower will join in November, when his Currie Cup commitments in South Africa end. The 22-year-old has played most of his rugby at blindside, captaining the South African Schools and U20 teams. Stander is a big, physical unit and is highly thought of in his home country. He’s been a first-choice starter for the Bulls in his first year of Super Rugby. Quite the pedigree and if he can adapt quickly, he looks like he could prove something of a coup for Munster.
One of the highlights of Penney’s time at Canterbury was his ability to develop talented young players, helping them to take their game to the next level and push into Super Rugby. He has been in charge of academies and other underage teams too. That track record clearly played a part in Munster’s decision to appoint him. Penney feels that Munster have “some young kids who should have the opportunity to express themselves and make their mark.” It’s a really promising sign that Penney is already aware of the young talent Munster have available to them.
Chief among that talent is man of the moment, JJ Hanrahan. The Ireland U20 star was deservedly nominated for the IRB Junior Player of the Year recently and the hype will continue to build. Integrating the Kerry man into the Munster team in the correct manner will be a key part of Penney’s job. But the 19-year-old playmaker is not the only youngster who will be hoping for opportunities under the new coach.
In the back-three, Sean Scanlon and Luke O’Dea have shown attacking threat in their limited appearances. Simon Zebo has just completed his first season as a starter and is still learning. In midfield, Scott Deasy and Danny Barnes have plenty to offer if given the chance. The issue of whether Ronan O’Gara needs to be replaced sooner rather or later is divisive amongst Munster fans. Hanrahan and Ian Keatley will be in the former camp. At half-back, Conor Murray is still just 23. Cathal Sheridan is the same age and moves into the senior squad for next season. The Sligo native is another with great ability.
Up front, there’s more promise. Loose forwards Paddy Butler, Dave O’Callaghan and Tommy O’Donnell showed up well last season. Second-rows Dave Foley and Ian Nagle have been highlighted as players of potential for some time now, and will hope to get the game time their development needs. In the front-row, Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry and Stephen Archer should graduate into valuable squad members. Beyond that trio, hooker Sean Henry and props John Ryan and Alan Cotter will be hoping for exposure.
The point is that Munster have the raw materials there to build strongly over the next couple of seasons. We haven’t even mentioned the likes of Keith Earls, Peter O’Mahony and Felix Jones, who still have youth on their side. Penney’s job will be to exact the utmost from each of these talented players, blending their youthful zest with the experience of Paul O’Connell, Doug Howlett and Ronan O’Gara. It may take a couple of years, but the wait could well be worth it for Munster fans.
Let us know your thoughts on the season ahead for Munster by leaving a comment below. Which young players do you rate? Which new signings will have a big impact? Can Munster grab some silverware in Penney’s first season?