It is, perhaps, an indication of how much Munster have slipped that a 21-5 home win over Zebre, achieved without scoring for the closing 55 minutes and failing to secure a bonus point, is greeted as a cause for celebration.
But at least Munster, who had never lost their two opening competitive games in the professional era, have their first win of the new URC season and Graham Rowntree, having also suffered home preseason losses to Gloucester and London Irish before down away to Cardiff and Dragons, has posted his first victory since taking charge.
The Rowntree coaching crew is not the first management team to seek patience for their style to take hold and the Munster faithful, deflated for over a decade now as a plethora of coaches have come and gone without adding to the last bit of silverware won in 2011, will allow them that.
But they will be the first to point out that basic errors, such as sloppy handling and passing, need to be at a much higher level than that witnessed by the crowd of 6,485. It was impossible for the crowd to get involved in an error-strewn game by both sides, while the constant stoppages — including for water breaks, for goodness sake —meant a drab occasion at Musgrave Park for Munster’s first home game of the season as the game just dragged on; the opening half took 55 minutes to complete.
Zebre, who remarkably lost eight of their own lineouts in the opening half, mainly through the pilfering skills of Peter O’Mahony, have now returned home without a win in 91 of their 100 away games since joining the league, yet Munster never looked like securing a bonus point despite wrapping up the win in the opening 25 minutes.
Rowntree, who challenged his players for a response after the loss to Dragons, said there were aspects he was pleased with.
“Control, particularly first half. Set-piece, around our maul, some of the things we’ve been doing in training are coming off. Actually, second half we did some good things but it was just littered with our own errors in terms of ball retention.
“We have to do better with the amount of territory and possession we had in that second half. We have to look at ourselves again, how we can look after the ball better.”
All three Munster tries came from lineout mauls, with hooker Niall Scannell getting two of them. He got his first after nine minutes after a good maul, while tighthead Kenyan Knox struck after 18 minutes following a lineout on the right.
A tapped penalty from Craig Casey set in flow a move which Jack O’Donoghue finished but it was whistled back on review over the grounding.
The reprieve was short-lived for the Italians. Munster went to the left corner with a penalty and the drive again ended with Scannell scoring and Ben Healy adding his third conversion.
Zebre reduced the margin six minutes after the restart when a chip from Jacopo Trulla bounced horribly for Healy and Lorenzo Pani pounced to score.
Stephen Archer came on for this 250th Munster appearance — he’s now just 13 off Donncha O’Callaghan’s record — but they never looked like getting the try bonus point.
18-year old Ruadhán Quinn, who did his Leaving Cert this summer, became Munster’s youngest ever player in the professional era when he came on for the closing six minutes and if there is one area their fans can find real hope, it is in the willingness of Rowntree to give youth its fling.
Another former Crescent College player, Conor Phillips, made his senior debut on Saturday while on the other wing former Cork All-Ireland minor footballer Patrick Campbell started in the league for the first time. And with another academy player, Edwin Edogbo from Cobh, coming on for his second appearance, it’s clear Rowntree is keen to give them a chance, even if his hand might have been forced by the huge contingent gone with the Emerging Ireland squad.
“It’s excellent, just excellent for their development,” added Rowntree. “The senior guys in this club are very good at pulling those guys along, not singling them out in training but pulling them with them.
“He’s electric, Patrick Campbell, the same with Philsy [Conor Phillips]. I was delighted with Ruadhán again, came off the bench, made a debut and made a dent with some good carries up the edge there. He’s a real prospect for the future, especially as he’s only 10 years old! He’s exciting.
“That’s one thing that’s coming through very quickly and I’m looking to force it through, is the youth. We’ve got a good academy and I’m looking at putting these guys through as quickly as is possible.”