Munster showing no fear as they aim to end era of near misses

This fearless team are suddenly within one game of ending the drought

For the best part of the last dozen seasons Munster have been banging on the door in their search for a trophy. Now, just when it seemed they’d stopped banging, they’ve almost crept in surreptitiously to another final.

Since beating Leinster in the 2011 Magners League final, Munster have fallen short in the semi-finals of what morphed into the Pro12, Pro14 and now United Rugby Championship on five occasions, as well as reaching the semi-finals of the Champions Cup five times as well.

In addition, Munster have reached three Pro12/Pro14 finals. In other words, in the decade following that 2011 triumph Munster reached three finals and 10 semi-finals. Such consistency should be commended in many respects, but of course it hasn’t been.

This is partly because Munster have become victims of their own success to some extent, as is now happening to Leinster. That Magners League success of 2011 was the province’s fourth major trophy in a period of seven years, following the Champions Cup wins over 2006 and 2008, and the League triumphs of 2003 and 2009.


They were the years of bounty. What has followed has been the years of near misses.

The Champions Cup quarter-final defeat by a Ruan Pienaar-inspired Ulster in 2012 both removed Munster’s cloak of invincibility and left scars, meaning that the League semi-final away to the Ospreys four weeks later was simply a game too far – hence the 46-20 defeat. That game marked an ill-fitting end to Tony McGahan’s four-year reign as head coach.

Graham Rowntree is now the fifth head coach to try to emulate McGahan and Declan Kidney as the only two coaches in the professional era to guide Munster to silverware.

Under Rob Penney, there was a highly creditable 2012-13 campaign in Europe which ended with a 16-10 defeat by Clermont in the semi-finals in Montpellier, and the following season Munster reached the semi-finals of both competitions, losing to Toulon in Marseille and Glasgow by a point in Scotstoun.

So, when Munster reached the Pro12 final in 2014-15 under Anthony Foley against Glasgow at the Kingspan Stadium, after finishing level on points with the Scottish team over the regular 22-game season, it seemed like a gilt-edged opportunity in Paul O’Connell’s last game.

But with Peter O’'Mahony and Conor Murray ruled out, Munster were obliterated by the offloading of Leone Nakawara, the creativity of Finn Russell and the cutting edge provided by Stuart Hogg – all in their pomp under Gregor Townsend’s inventive coaching. The game was over within half an hour, by which stage Glasgow led 21-3, before going on to secure their first title in something of a bloodless coup, by 31-13.

“In 2015, wow, that was a tough one to take,” admitted CJ Stander this week. Looking back now, me personally, I wasn’t expecting to be in that final.

“We played well during the year and then suddenly we find ourselves in the final. So, playing a final, playing in Belfast, I think we went there thinking that it’s just another game, we’re in Ireland and we’re going to perform and we didn’t perform at all. Glasgow gave us a very, very convincing hiding.”

To a degree, there was an element of misfortune in bumping into the finest Glasgow side of the professional era.

If Munster looked far away from the standards required to lift silverware then, despite an emotional rollercoaster under Rassie Erasmus after the passing of Anthony Foley, they looked even further away two seasons later.

Following Foley’s death on the morning of the postponed Champions Cup game against Racing, Munster won 20 of their next 22 matches. But the gulf then evident in the semi-final defeat by Saracens at the Aviva Stadium was compounded four weeks later at the same stadium in a crushing 46-22 Pro12 loss to the Scarlets.

Granted, that Scarlets’ team was one of Dave Rennie’s finest creations and with Tadhg Beirne’s ability to win breakdown turnovers a launching pad, akin to the final two years previously, the Welsh region killed the game inside the first 30 minutes, by which stage Munster were already 29-3 adrift.

After the full house for the Saracens game, this defeat in front of a near full house felt acutely embarrassing, and as the baton was passed on from Erasmus to Johann van Graan, nothing much seemed to change.

Well beaten in Champions Cup semi-finals by Racing 92 and Saracens, their struggles were compounded by three successive Pro12/Pro14 semi-final defeats by Leinster at the RDS and an empty Aviva, which was followed by a hastily arranged, post-Six Nations final against Leinster in which Munster were again well beaten.

A common thread in all these losses was that Munster hardly fired a shot, each final or semi-final defeat heaping more indignity on them.

Last season there was an honourable Champions Cup exit at the Aviva Stadium via a 100-minute draw before losing a goal-kicking competition against Toulouse. But even so, having finished sixth in the inaugural URC, they were well beaten, 36-17, by Ulster in Belfast.

To a greater extent than ever before since that 2011 Magners League triumph, there’s actually been little or no talk of ending that 11-year trophy drought.

Instead, there almost appears to have been an acceptance that with the advent of the South African teams, the drought was likely to last a good deal longer. This seemed all the truer when Munster lost five of their first seven games under Rowntree and his new coaching ticket, and particularly so when they hit the buffers in those defeats at home to Glasgow and away to the Sharks in the Champions Cup.

More than at any time in the last dozen seasons, Munster looked cornered. Merely qualifying for next season’s Champions Cup would have sufficed. Whereupon, having ended a long unbeaten home run by the Stormers, after showing much more set-piece and defensive steel in drawing with the Sharks, they also ended long unbeaten home runs by both Glasgow and Leinster.

That was their first knock-out win in 12 seasons against Leinster, yet the Red Army invasion in the 27,000 wasn’t far off five figures. They like this Munster team, they like the way they’re trying to play.

After “all of the disappointments” over the years, as Stander puts it, Munster had two choices. “Somewhere, someone is going to go, ‘right, we’re broken, let’s just split up’, and everyone goes their different ways, or you’re going to go ‘right, what have we done wrong? Where can we learn?’

“I think Munster has said this for the last six or seven years: ‘We’re going to learn, we’re going to learn’ and what I see now is the squad is enjoying themselves. They’re going out and playing well and doing very well.

“Their lineout is performing well, the ball is going wide and guys like Calvin Nash and Shane Daly are getting a bit more ball in hand.

“There’s a sense of there’s almost no fear, ‘we’re going to go out there, no one’s expecting anything anyway so let’s just go out there and play for ourselves firstly, then for the extended squad’. You can see that enjoyment coming out on the pitch.

“Watching them playing the Stormers in Cape Town a few weeks ago they just kept on doing their thing, kept on knocking on the door and they came out victorious at the end of it. So there’s a sense of no fear, ‘let’s go and do that jersey proud’. I heard that was what was used and it was successful.”

The thought of 5,000 travelling to Cape Town – considering the costs – demonstrates what a brand they remain, as well as the potential good will out there.

Munster are still the underdogs, for sure. But suddenly, after banging on the door for over a decade, when least expected to do so they’ve taken the tradesman’s entrance to the final.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times