To the victor the spoils and a summer full of contentment as the Munster coaches and players get to bask in the sunshine of a first piece of silverware in 12 years. A thoroughly merited victory could have been more emphatic had they managed to take a couple more first half try-scoring chances. Those concerns only matter when you lose.
Munster head coach Graham Rowntree has overseen a remarkable progression from a squad that stuttered and stumbled its way through the first half a dozen games of the season to one that demonstrated tremendous resolve and character to eke out a series of big wins on the road en route to a URC triumph in South Africa.
The other Irish provinces will look on in envy. Connacht will look forward as the Andy Friend era is replaced by that of Pete Wilkins with the addition of some new faces out west, both in coaching and in terms of the roster. Ulster must figure out why performance levels in the latter part of the season fell off a cliff and how they will future-proof against a repeat.
Leinster’s disappointment will be the most acute as having largely cut a swathe through the opposition for the past two seasons both in Europe and the URC, they came up short in the four games that mattered, two Champions Cup finals and two URC semi-finals.
This year should hurt more when trying to numb the pain of giving up a 17-point lead against La Rochelle in their second home, having the previous week rolled the dice with selection and failed to come up with the right numbers against Munster.
Johnny Sexton is the headline name in the list of those departing Leinster but the real concern for me is that there have been no signings, so the assumption is that they must fill from within. Leinster, like all the provinces, must work within the Irish system, but can the obvious holes in a couple of positions be filled by the current squad and the academy? The answer for me is no.
Sam Prendergast will hopefully get some game time while the Rugby World Cup unfurls in France and will not only have to sidestep tacklers but Sexton comparisons. I have a suspicion which one may prove more difficult.
Leinster were light in back three options last season and the departure of the experienced Dave Kearney renders those resources translucent. Leo Cullen knows that Leinster can’t stand still for a second in style or substance and that in places like Toulon, Toulouse and Racing 92 under Stuart Lancaster, they will have been studying the notes on La Rochelle’s blueprint for success.
Leinster’s review will start internally but perhaps their answers lie outside of the environment. Jacques Nienaber will break any ‘group think’ that might have developed, but without external recruitment it’s hard to see Leinster successfully filling the gaps on the roster to enable them to prevail outright in Europe.
Munster’s growth path over the season leaves them with a different imperative when they return after the summer break. They need to build on what they have won, having taken time to lay solid foundations. While I’ll probably never go as far as to say I supported a Munster win, I am delighted that they won.
The impact of quality coaching, focused on skills, must be extremely satisfying for the staff and players. There are reflected kudos as provincial coaches watch their players graduate to the Ireland squad. Winning opens a broader pathway and Munster should get greater representation in personnel terms.
From a Munster perspective Jack Crowley, Antoine Frisch, Jean Kleyn, John Hodnett, Calvin Nash and Malakai Fekitoa stood up and were counted when it mattered most in the big games. Fekitoa, the former All Black, belatedly settled into the Munster environment and revealed his talent as part of a dangerous 10-12-13 axis.
It is disappointing that he is leaving now, but perhaps they got the best out of him, and Alex Nankivell will bring a new dimension next season. Munster have coveted a trophy for so long, in many ways that was the easy part, as the hard work of developing the next generation of talent starts straight away with renewed expectation and promise.
Ireland’s Test match season finished up with the Grand Slam finale in March, but Andy Farrell and his coaches will have been carefully scrutinising player performances and a first inkling of their thoughts was in the extended squad released on Tuesday afternoon.
Players would have found themselves in one of two categories in terms of the Rugby World Cup pecking order, where you know the national coach is going to be in touch or you are hoping that he will be. I’ve been on both sides of that fence, and I much preferred being confident that I would be in the coach’s plans to having my fingers crossed from the fringes in 2003.
Four years later I earned my spot because Leinster had begun to win and were beginning to close the gap on Ireland’s most successful province at the time, Munster. My peers in the back three of the Irish squad were either from my own team or a Munster team in between European triumphs.
There is no doubt that players like Munster’s Jean Kleyn will have closed the gap during the last six months to a point where his inclusion would have been discussed, albeit that he didn’t make the extended squad. His form has been consistently excellent, his durability a cornerstone for his team but has also added subtlety of passing to his armoury.
John Hodnett’s man of the match display in the URC final was a timely reminder that he possesses the qualities to operate successfully in the land of giants but while he too would have been a conversation topic for the Irish management when weighing up their options at openside flanker behind Josh van der Flier, they decided against including Hodnett and/or Scott Penny.
Antoine Frisch is a player that interests me. He was consistently excellent and influential irrespective of whether he is operating off pristine possession or having to try and play off back-foot ball. For me he is a player that would thrive in the Irish environment. Farrell and his backs coach Mike Catt are satisfied with the existing centre cohort, while Ciarán Frawley’s versatility is acknowledged.
Keith Earls, Calvin Nash, rewarded for a brilliant season, and Jacob Stockdale have won the scramble for places, so too young Leinster back Jamie Osborne, who along with Frawley and Nash are as yet uncapped. Robert Baloucoune and Shane Daly will have reason to be disappointed but the unequivocal message from Farrell, for now at least, is one of loyalty.