Graham Rowntree knows just how tough a task Munster face
Desire to beat Leinster is huge after 10 losses in the last 11 meetings against their rivals
Munster orwards coach Graham Rowntree during training ahead of the Rainbow Cup match against Leinster. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
It possibly isn’t stretching things to say that meetings between Leinster and Munster have lost a little of their novelty value during the pandemic. Yet come tomorrow’s Rainbow Cup meeting at the RDS (kick-off 7.35pm, live on eir Sport) Leinster would love nothing more than to maintain their supremacy in this age-old rivalry and Munster would still love to beat them more than anyone else.
Munster’s desire is fuelled by having lost 10 of the last 11 meetings, the most recent of which in the Guinness Pro14 final established a new post-WW2 record in the rivalry of six wins in succession for one side.
In the fall out of that 16-6 defeat by their nemesis four weeks ago, Stephen Larkham sought to convince both his own players and the wider public that Munster had been more competitive in that final than many had contended, including Johann van Graan. He was drawing on his experience of how Australia had to instill belief in themselves that they could beat New Zealand.
The way Munster’s belief seemed to shrink from early on in the second-half sure seemed to suggest they may have psychological issues against Leinster in light of results over the last four seasons. Yet forwards coach Graham Rowntree maintains this ain’t necessarily so.
“It’s not a psychological challenge, is it? Factually, we’ve played them a lot over the last year and we’ve not beaten them. We have to look at why that happens and what we can do better, it’s as simple as that and not build it up to be a psychological challenge - take from the game what we can do better.
“All we can do is try and work on that.”
Arguably, the composure and quality of Leinster’s intervening Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final win away to reigning champions Exeter makes Munster’s performance in the final look a little less shabby.
“They’re a good team aren’t they? A proven good team. Look at their performance down at Exeter,” said Rowntree.
“But we’re a good team as well. Trouble is, we’ve not given a good enough account of ourselves, particularly in that final, we know that and we look to build on our game. We’ve progressed our game nicely, particularly with Steve’s input over the last 18 months, but we have to get that on the pitch and we’re acutely aware that we didn’t do that in the final. But we can only look forwards and affect what we can do day in, day out.”
Nonetheless, for all Munster’s continuing competitiveness every season, their ensuing quarter-final defeat by Toulouse re-affirmed the feeling that the top tier teams are a step above them. For example, it was striking how Leinster and Toulouse, by contrast, had dynamic, young international front-rowers such as Tadhg Furlong, Ronan Kelleher, Andrew Porter, Julien Marchand and Cyril Baille.
Viewed in that contest, the 29-year-old Crusaders and Samoan tight-head Michael Alaalatoa looked a better fit for Munster than Leinster, and more so than another South African lock in Jason Jenkins.
Rowntree, however, believes in the potential of the 22-year-old Keynan Knox, who has started two games, and the 23-year-old Roman Salanoa, whose five appearances this season have been off the bench.
This emanates from “working with them day in, day out” he said, adding: “My experience, having worked within other environments with youngsters, seeing them come through, they’re certainly tracking well. I can’t speak highly enough about them, they’re good lads, good to work with. They just want to get better.
“It’s up to us as to when we expose them in the big games and I think we’re doing that well. We’re bringing guys through at the appropriate time.”
In this he also cited the examples of Josh Wycherley and Gavin Coombes.
Anger over the release of JJ Hanrahan and Darren Sweetnam, while signing Jenkins, has been assuaged by the announcement that Simon Zebo, a crowd favourite, is making a prodigal return.
Hail the Messiah.
“Are we calling Simon Zebo the Messiah? Are we really doing that?” said Rowntree, a tad incredulously, before adding: “I’ve worked with him before, I worked with him on the 2013 Lions. He’s good craic, has good energy. He’s a good professional. It’s great news.
“I’m delighted to hear that it’s generating excitement around the club and around the city. The club is certainly the club I thought it would be when I signed, it’s a great club and we just want to get better and win things. We want to do that for the fans.”
The winds of change have been strengthened by the emergence of Coombes and Craig Casey in particular this season, and the promotion of three young outhalves from the academy to the senior squad, Jack Crowley, Ben Healy and Jake Flannery, as well as the aforementioned Wycherley and the 21-year-old lock Thomas Ahern.
“There are 53 guys we’ve used this season and there’s young guys coming through who are performing and are worthy of holding their position in the team so yeah, you could say there’s some change,” said Rowntree.
“It comes, doesn’t it? Your team is naturally always evolving and you’ve got to be ready for that all the time.”
At the more experienced end of the squad, which is about to lose a combined 583 provincial appearances with the retirements of Billy Holland, CJ Stander and Tommy O’Donnell, there is continuing potency in the Damian de Allende-Chris Farrell midfield partnership, and when working in tandem with the backrow.
“I think you can see that from our games, apart from maybe the final as such where we didn’t show enough of that and we’re not going to hide away from that.
“But yeah I think we’ve seen that all season, Damian and Chris are huge, they are a huge centre partnership. They’ve played well and that interplay and that connection, and those moves we use linking the centres and the back row together, I think we’ve seen a lot of that this season and we’re happy with where that’s going.”