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FEATURE Munster have much to play for after blowing best Champions Cup shot in years

Munster have much to play for after blowing best Champions Cup shot in years
2 months ago

“Did I say vernacular? That’s a very Graham Rowntree word to say.” We are four days out from Munster’s next big South African job, but less than 24 hours from Rowntree and the Munster coaching staff paying a visit to a Cape Town vineyard. Rowntree is excited enough by the prospect to briefly slip into third-person speak.

For the second season running, Munster’s URC jaunt to South Africa has come at a good time. The last many rugby reporters saw of Rowntree and his players in person, they were green at the gills after a virus swept through the camp. Craig Casey was vomiting pitchside during the Champions Cup loss to Northampton Saints, while captain Tadhg Beirne was white as a sheet, between hacking coughs, in the post-match briefing.

Having been ravaged by illness in the build-up, Munster fell to a 24-14 last-16 defeat at Franklin’s Gardens (Photo by PA)

Victory in last season’s URC final, in Cape Town, ensured Munster would be one of the top seeds. They were drawn with Toulon, Bayonne, Glasgow, Northampton and Exeter. Heading to Sandy Park and Stade Mayol would be testing, but Exeter and Toulon have been shorn of considerable talent.

Getting three points (a draw and a losing bonus) from home games against Bayonne and Saints proved costly and Munster paid the price when they went to Northampton in the knockout stages. Defeat at Franklin’s Gardens, when Munster rapidly chugged out of gas, confirmed they had blown their best Champions Cup chance in years.

“I would 100% agree with that,” said prop John Ryan. “We had an opportunity there and between everything that cropped up, I suppose we let it slip. Actually, I don’t think it is fair to say that word, slip, because we had a lot of adversity. We had about two months where we could hardly play a second row. We had two second rows fit and sometimes only one. Our injuries were a bit of a nightmare.

You can see that from how they train, how they set themselves, every minute of the day. They’re warriors, those guys.

“Then you get some good news and have a bit of momentum in February and March. We won 19 out of 20 points in the league. It was disappointing, then, we had a poor week in Europe. Everyone knows about the illness but it was played down a bit. The boys were very ill, and RG (Snyman) missing, too, was tough. You have to roll with the punches. That’s what we did but unfortunately, we came up second best.”

Back in May 2023, as celebrations raged around him in the coaches’ box at DHL Stadium, Rowntree cradled his head as he absorbed the URC triumph. Down on the pitch, for the trophy presentation, it was interesting to note how older heads such as Peter O’Mahony, Beirne, Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Malakai Fekitoa stood off to the right as Gavin Coombes, Diarmuid Barron and Fineen Wycherley took centre stage.

Dancing away, over on the left was the even younger crop of John Hodnett, Jack Crowley, Casey and Alex Kendellen. Their path to victory – five away wins on the trot – had made it an unlikely success story, but it felt like the pieces were in place for Munster to push on. Rowntree could also call upon Ireland Under-20 players Ruadhan Quinn and Brian Gleeson, as well as exciting prospect Edwin Edogbo and Super Rugby recruit Alex Nankivell.

The aftermath of that last-16 loss hung in the air for quite a few days. Barron, Gleeson and Edogbo had all picked up rough injuries. There were doubts over the future of O’Mahony and Simon Zebo. Jean Kleyn had returned a World Cup winner but lasted 68 minutes against Leinster and picked up bad knee and eye injuries – he will not return until the start of the next campaign.

Andrew Conway had been forced to retire. Joey Carbery was heading off to France and Irish-qualified Antoine Frisch had declared his intentions to play for France. On top of all that, Munster were told they could not keep two South African locks on their books and Snyman had to go. Leinster swooped in and announced they would look after the 6ft 9ins two-time world champion next season.

Peter O'Mahony and <a href=Conor Murray have both won five Six Nations titles with Ireland, but how much longer will they remain involved?” width=”1024″ height=”683″ />Munster totems Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony have agreed to play on for another year (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Leinster were not done adding salt to fresh wounds. They announced, in short succession, Jordie Barrett was arriving and he would be coached by former Munster fly-half, Tyler Bleyendaal, secured from the Super Rugby-leading Hurricanes.

Leinster are also moving to Aviva Stadium next season while the RDS is upgraded, with some marquee games set for the 82,300-seat Croke Park. Leinster just happen to supply over half of the players in Andy Farrell’s senior squad and (at 10) take up the bulk of central contracts on offer by the IRFU.

Munster, it seemed, had thrown their best punch in that URC final. Leinster had responded with an unbearable flurry.

Following their Champions Cup exit, a glimmer of hope. O’Mahony was opting, like Murray, to sign on for another season. It remains to be seen how much of that season will be taken up with Ireland duty. There is still a chance his last dance could be an all-in effort in Munster red. Asked what the conversations were like between himself, O’Mahony and Murray, Rowntree was brief.

“I didn’t have to have conversations with them,” he declared. “I knew.

“You can see that from how they train, how they set themselves, every minute of the day. They’re warriors, those guys. We’re lucky and blessed to have them around. They want to carry on and play for Munster. They love it. They know what we want to achieve, with another trophy. We’ve spoken before of the hope last year was not a one-off. They have the same feeling. They’re proud Munster men. I’ve got nothing more fancy for you than that!”

Murray and O’Mahony will hang on in there and be the guiding hands, and exemplars, the likes of Paul O’Connell, Keith Earls and Denis Leamy were when they were breaking through.

Eleven months on, Munster were back in South Africa. They are playing in Pretoria and Johannesburg, but based themselves in Cape Town. Understandably, they have great memories of the place. Asked for more on the decision to settle there, and travel for games, Rowntree replied: “Will I turn the laptop around and show you the view? It’s a special place.”

Munster have been stirred by a comeback win over a strong Bulls side secured by Murray’s late try. The reigning champions curbed the attacking side of their game in favour of a territorial battle which relied heavily on the boot and box-kicks of their veteran scrum-half.

“The players are away from everything but we’re all together again,” Rowntree added. “They are getting to know each other more, and getting connected. I think that’s the current vernacular.”

Rowntree was so relaxed, in fact, he opted to park all Munster v Leinster and central contract chat. “I’ve got nothing to say on that. It is what it is. It’s something I’ll comment on when I get back on Irish soil.”

Munster will hope to conclude another deal or two before next season. They have Billy Burns coming from Ulster to essentially replace Carbery and provide some experienced cover. Back-three still looks a tad shallow, but Shay McCarthy may kick on, Paddy Campbell is a decent prospect and they have smartly recruited Connacht winger Diarmuid Kilgallen. There has been talk of going after Ultan Dillane, if a decent package can be secured to lure him back from La Rochelle. Murray and O’Mahony will hang on in there and be the guiding hands, and exemplars, the likes of Paul O’Connell, Keith Earls and Denis Leamy were when they were breaking through.

Munster United Rugby Championship
Munster conquered the Stormers to win last year’s URC crown in Cape Town (Photo by Rodger Bosch / AFP) (Photo by RODGER BOSCH/AFP via Getty Images)

Munster are keenly aware Cape Town last May cannot be something they look back on as a springboard they could not harness. They timed their last URC run to perfection and you get the sense they are confident they can repeat the trick. What is to play for? Legacy, top seedings and another spoke in that Leinster wheel. Plenty, plenty, plenty.

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