James Coughlan: Munster should have succession plan in place already

Toulon coach’s old club are facing three seasons without reaching the quarter-finals

Munster's season hangs in the balance a little, and once again a little earlier than usual. On this weekend last year they were knocked out of the Heineken Champions Cup in the round of 16, and while there was no shame in losing to eventual winners and five-time champions Toulouse, another relatively premature Euro exit could make for a somewhat drawn out anti-climax to their campaign.

That defeat came a week after the last season’s Pro14 final defeat by Leinster, which meant that for the remainder of the season they had nothing to play for bar the ill-conceived and ill-fated Rainbow Cup.

Consider too that Munster also exited at the pool stages two seasons ago, admittedly in a fiendishly difficult group containing Saracens and Racing 92.

Hence, failure to progress past Exeter over this two-legged last 16 tie would see Munster fail to reach the quarter-finals for three seasons in a row. That hasn't happened since 1998, ie the first three years of the competition.

Not that you go into a game thinking it's okay to lose but Munster within two scores at Thomond Park can beat anybody"

These are the standards Munster have historically set for themselves and are judged by, as much by themselves and their own supporters. Consider too that in the 20 years up to three seasons ago Munster won two Cups, reached another two finals and 14 semi-finals or better, only failing to reach the quarter-finals or better on three occasions.

Uncertainty

Defeat on aggregate over the next two Saturdays against Exeter would also follow another home defeat by Leinster last week, leaving them hanging onto a home quarter-final in the URC but facing Ulster, in second place, a week later, followed by games at home to Cardiff and, after a two-week interregnum watching the European quarter-finals and semi-finals, away to Leinster.

And all this to a backdrop of utter uncertainty, with still no white smoke regarding a successor to Johann van Graan a full four months since confirmation of his departure, not to mention replacements for Stephen Larkham and JP Ferreira as well.

Against that, were they to overcome Exeter in this round 16 tie Munster would go into that URC run-in knowing they were still alive in Europe as well, with a quarter-final away to Ulster or at home to Toulouse three weeks subsequently.

That would maintain spirit in the organisation and among the supporter base, as well as giving impetus to the end of the van Graan/Larkham tenure.

‘Season-defining’ is perhaps becoming a cliched expression, but how else to look upon these Exeter games, especially after last week?

"You don't want to talk badly about your old team," their former number '8' James Coughlan told The Irish Times this week.

“Everyone thinks they can do a better job. It’s easy to point the finger at coaches and we get enough of it here and it’s so easy to point the finger at the coaching staff,” admitted the current Toulon forwards and defence coach, but he saw some disconcerting signs in Munster’s 34-19 defeat by Leinster last Saturday.

“I was surprised how easily Leinster got around them with their wraparounds. Leinster have been doing those wraparounds for a long time, and they were able to just get outside them every time, and they’ve been doing them since (Gordon) D’Arcy and (Brian) O’Driscoll were playing.

“Almost everyone has copied and pasted that. Most senior teams will have that play in their book and that was the bit that surprised me. For James Lowe’s second try in the corner, Earlsy (Keith Earls) is on his own in front of four guys, and I was thinking: ‘How are they so tight?’

What concerns Coughlan is that Exeter will have seen this too.

Also recalling the failure to close out the first-half with a 12-11 lead after a poor exit and pressurised scrum, Coughlan added: “Once Leinster scored seven minutes after half-time it felt like the game was nearly over.”

A year ago, after Munster’s defeat by Toulouse, Coughlan said there was a “massive gap” between the two, and while “it might have closed a little bit now” that’s as much due to Toulouse’s unspectacular season to date.

Injuries

Injuries have also come at a bad time, and the loss through injury of Dave Kilcoyne, Tadhg Beirne and Gavin Coombes is also concerning. "You take them out of any pack and it's going to be difficult, especially away from home," Coughlan admits.

Against that, he adds: “No-one is going to throw the towel in. They’re going to go as hard as they can for as long as they can. The question is have they enough quality? I think it’s going to be a very difficult fixture for Munster, and where do you go then?

Leinster just expect to win now when they go to Thomond Park and the worrying thing for the front office rather than the sports office is that the stadium wasn't full"

“I think there’ll be a lot of head scratching. With Larkham, Johann and JP leaving there hasn’t been any announcement. I think all those lads will want to leave on a positive note. But going out in the last 16 is not a positive note. Then there’ll be all kinds of questions with regards to: ‘Where are we going?’ What’s the progression?’

"It's not as if they're not producing players when you look at the Coombes and the Wycherleys and Craig Casey. "

Coughlan, who believes they and other younger players should have been given the reins last season after the loss to Toulouse, adds: “Leinster just expect to win now when they go to Thomond Park and the worrying thing for the front office rather than the sports office is that the stadium wasn’t full. A home game against Leinster!

“That’s the biggest fixture in that tournament, and to not have a full Thomond Park suggests we need to get back to winning those fixtures if we’re going to fill the stadium. There’s plenty of bigger questions that need to be answered.”

Coughlan is also concerned about the absence of a coaching succession plan not being put in place by now.

Good news

“So who’s doing the recruitment for next season? Who’s signing new players? John Ryan has gone to Wasps, is there a new frontrow coming in? Are we replacing Chris Cloete? There doesn’t seem to be much good news around the place.”

Coughlan, like many others, also struggles to find any clear identity in Munster’s game, and what their priorities are. “Whether it’s to play territory? Or keep the ball and play from wherever? When I watch them they seem to fall between the two stools.

“Their kicks are either too long to be contestable but they’re not long enough to be occupation either.

"I always cheer Munster when I'm watching them. I'm always screaming at the telly but it's 2011 since the last trophy and 14 years since the second Heineken Cup. And I bet you if you asked the supporters they'd be quicker to rattle off that team than the one which played a week before in the URC."

Against all of that, Munster do have an excellent European record at Thomond Park, including the knock-out stages. Prior to last season’s defeat by Toulouse, they had won eight out of nine quarter-finals at their Limerick citadel.

They also have a 5-0-3 record away from home in the quarter-finals, although excluding their two semi-finals with Leinster in the old Lansdowne Road and Croke Park, Munster have won three and lost seven semi-finals away.

The luck of the semi-final draw has been unkind to them, and one often wondered how Munster might have fared had those ties been over two legs. Now, in theory, having the second leg at Thomond Park should be an advantage.

“They have to be within two scores,” is Coughlan’s estimate. “Not that you go into a game thinking it’s okay to lose but Munster within two scores at Thomond Park can beat anybody. And they’ll have a clear objective: ‘we need to beat this’.

Clear plan

“The other thing from a coaching pint of view is that you’ll have a clear plan of what you want to do. Unless it goes completely out the window in the first match - and I can’t see Munster getting hosed - it gives you an opportunity to have a clear plan. The other side of that coin is that Exeter will have a clear idea of Munster’s plan.

“For the first match, I will be shocked if Exeter don’t have a game plan like Leinster’s. They have the same kind of system as Leinster; two big centres and the option of the wraparound out the back. I also thought Munster really struggled with the speed of Leinster’s ball, that’s where defensively Munster ran into problems.

“They weren’t getting round to fold quickly enough. The Leinster boys were getting around quicker and had big men running at small men.”

But in all of this Coughlan also well knows that Munster are as dangerous as any other side when their backs are against the wall. Indeed, they did win away to Clermont last season and most inspiringly dug deep into their DNA with a makeshift amalgam of Test players and young tyros away to Wasps last December.

“They could well beat Exeter. You know how Munster are. You never write them off. They could pull it out of the hat and be absolutely amazing this weekend and give everyone a big finger: ‘We’re still here!’” There will be no lack of want from everyone in the club.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times