Stephen Larkham’s Munster declaration is good news for the province

A settled coaching ticket wil help chances in the tougher United Rugby Championship

Stephen Larkham has confirmed he wishes to stay with Munster beyond the current season. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Stephen Larkham has confirmed he wishes to stay with Munster beyond the current season. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

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Stephen Larkham’s unambiguous declaration that he, and the remainder of the Munster coaching staff, want to extend their stay beyond this season should be interpreted as good news for the province.

The one-time Wallabies’ World Cup winning outhalf is entering the third and final year of his existing contract, and after such a stellar playing career and having been coaching for a decade with the Brumbies, Australia and now Munster, he is a prized name in the global game.

Whatever the rumours about the Waratahs’ supposed interest in bringing him home, Larkham made clear his committment to the Munster cause yesterday when asked if he wished to stay with them beyond this season.

“Of course,” he answered, without hesitation, and then added for good measure: “We all do.”

“It’s a great environment here at the moment. We certainly feel like things are building in the right direction. We had a really good year last year and we want that to continue.

“We’ve got a really good cohesion as a coaching group at the moment, we’re really enjoying it and from a playing perspective it’s really our third year together now as a larger group. Yeah, the environment’s great at the moment.”

It remains to be seen if their third season as a coaching ticket has the return of others such as Dave Rennie, Pat Lam and Leo Cullen, who won the Pro12 or Pro14 in their third seasons with the Scarlets, Connacht and Leinster.

The rebranded United Rugby Championship looks a tougher, more competitive tournament, and Leinster won’t be going away any time soon, but settled coaching tickets are generally preferable. Certainly the increased likelihood of Larkham staying on as senior coach seems preferable than having to find a replacement, and ditto Graham Rowntree as forwards coach.

This is all the truer with a new crop of forwards coming through in light of CJ Stander, Billy Holland and Tommy O’Donnell all retiring and James Cronin being released. Likewise with JJ Hanrahan moving on and Ben Healy and Jack Crowley coming through along with Larkham’s mentoring of Joey Carbery.

Simon Zebo dives to score on his Munster return against the Sharks. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Simon Zebo dives to score on his Munster return against the Sharks. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

The latter’s channel was targeted by the Sharks in Munster’s opening 42-17 win last Saturday but Larkham maintained: “I think that’s a channel that everyone runs down, that ‘10’ channel. Some teams go hard at the ‘10’, whether that’s the centre, or the blind wing or in the tracks.

“Joey is a good defender, I think we saw that at the weekend. He probably fell off a couple of tackles but he certainly slowed them down, and tripped a lot of them up and made a significant number of tackles as well. It’s not an area that we’ve spoken about specifically. We feel that’s an area that the ‘10s’ just have to handle.”

Munster were slower into their stride than Leinster had been just beforehand in beating the Bulls. Munster’s first try came from Simon Zebo capitalising upon turnover ball and the next four were close-range finishes resulting from pack pressure.

Yet there were glimpses of the ball-in-hand rugby worked on in pre-season which the players found so enjoyable, not least in the flurry of tip-ons and offloads which led to Zebo finishing off Dan Goggin’s well-weighted grubber on the run.

But much and all as Larkham enjoyed that “beautiful passage”, he added a rider in advance of next Saturday’s game against the Stormers at Thomond Park (7.35pm).

“Our game evolved significantly from the end of Pro14 through to that Rainbow Cup period where we had good weather for that period and we’re seeing that continue into the start of this season. We had really good weather at the weekend.

“Things are most likely going to change this weekend looking at weather predictions but I think when you’re training in the pre-season over here it is generally through summer. You’ve got good conditions out there. The ball is nice and dry, and yeah, we had a lot of touches. We kept the ball off the ground, we didn’t make many mistakes and it was enjoyable from that perspective.”

Whether or not Munster’s game plan will change drastically as a result of the weather, Larkham said: “We’ve always been about balance. Our game doesn’t change but when we get out there and we see what conditions are like we have slight modifications that sometimes take the risk out of our game and put the pressure back on the opposition.

“We’re more about transferring that pressure to the opposition when it’s just too hard sometimes to hold onto the ball. That’s all it is. Our game hasn’t changed this year compared to last year, compared to the year before either.

“We had everything in there. It just really depends on the opposition and the conditions, the scoreboard pressure, where you’re at in the game and all that sort of stuff as well.”

Munster had no injury concerns from last Saturday’s game, and encouragingly flanker John Hodnett and hooker Kevin O’Byrne returned to training this week.

An Achilles tendon injury has sidelined the talented Hodnett, who has that Munster dog in him, since last November, while O’Byrne has been missing the start of the season due to a leg injury.

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