Eamonn is a Munster fan and has titled his preview "A Step into the Unknown"
Uncertainty hangs over Munster like a towering Garryowen at the start of the 2012/13 RaboDirect PRO12 season. The new Kiwi coaching team of Rob Penney and Simon Mannix has made all the right noises in their first press outings, but it will take time for their philosophy and methods to wield themselves onto the squad’s DNA. In addition to the new coaches there have been significant squad changes, with Casey Laulala (Cardiff Blues), James Downey (Northampton Saints), Sean Dougall (Rotherham Titans) and CJ Stander (arriving in November from the Blue Bulls) all joining whilst stalwarts Leamy, Flannery and Wallace have all retired and O’Leary and Mafi have moved on. This is a lot for the current squad to assimilate given that their last outing saw them take a thumping in the Play-Offs against the Ospreys last May.
Munster’s first three opponents, Edinburgh (away), Treviso (home) and Ulster (away) is a tough opening and will hardly give the new coaches any leeway to experiment. So at this moment in time, no-one really knows what to expect from a new look Munster.
However, perhaps more significant than the new faces are those returning to the squad and emerging from the ‘A’ side that won the British and Irish Cup last year? Peter Stringer (back after a six month loan to England) and Doug Howlett (back from injury) return to lend huge experience and expertise at either end of the three quarter line and Paul O’Connell is making a steady recovery from the knee knock that saw him miss the back end of last season. Out-half JJ Hanrahan was shortlisted for World Junior Player of the Year after June’s Junior World Cup and the other tyros bursting from the winning British and Irish Cup side – Ivan Dineen, Danny Barnes, Paddy Butler, Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer – will all be pushing for starting berths this season. It should also not be forgotten that Conor Murray and Simon Zebo are beginning only their second seasons as full first team players, having enjoyed rapid promotion through the Munster ranks last season.
There is huge potential in Munster’s relatively inexperienced squad and the hope must be that Penney’s experience guiding the Baby Blacks in this year’s U20 World Cup and Canterbury to four ITM Cups in a row will allow an undoubtedly talented bunch to realise its full potential. Ally to this some sharper play at the breakdown, where Leinster, the Ospreys and Ulster all dominated them last year and a more cohesive approach from the three quarters should see Munster mount a realistic attempt to regain the competition title it lost last season.
With Foley developing a pack that can still boast O’Connell, O’Callaghan and Horan from the glory years of the mid-2000’s none of Munster’s infamous “dog” will be lacking this season. If Penney can successfully transfuse the new blood into the side, Munster may yet go from being a side teams still fear in the RaboDirect PRO12, to being one they dread playing again.