How’s the squad and atmosphere, Rassie in 8 weeks, is it building up, everybody ready to go?
‘There’s been a really good vibe abound the place last two months. We all trained together in Limerick for the first time ever so between that and Rassie and Jaq coming on board and Felix coming back in, there’s been a really good buzz around the place you know a positive vibe around the place which has been exciting so we’re just really looking forward to getting stuck into the games. We played Zebre the other night in horrendous conditions so that wasn’t the most enjoyable of preseason games but, we’re all really looking forward to getting stuck into the season.
A limerick training base, all together, how has that been?
‘We’re moving into our one centre I think next week or the week after but for preseason we’ve all been training together in Limerick for the first time ever, as I said which, has been really good because, not alone do you get more face time with the coaches and more time on the pitch with the coaches, things like Dave Foley had myself and a few of the Cork lads over for a BBQ last week, I’ve played with Dave Foley for years and it’s the first time I’ve ever been in his house so things like that a really important for squad morale and getting to know guys better.’
‘People use the whole Cork/Limerick split as an excuse but it can’t be an excuse over the years because Munster have won 2 European cups in that set up. But as the game has progressed and become more professional it is more important for us to spend more time together like every other club so it’s a really exciting time. It’s a huge commitment, 12 lads have moved from Cork to Limerick with their families, young fellas, old fellas like Thomas O’Leary has moved his wife and child up and then there a few guys who are still remaining in Cork but spend a few nights a week in Limerick, they have kids and families and wives who have jobs in Cork so it’s been a really positive step for Munster rugby’
How much has the pressure ramped up this season after last year’s struggles?
‘The last two games of the season last year where we played Scarlets and Edinburgh were two of the hardest games I’ve and other lads have played in pressure wise because you were in a situation where if you lose you’re not in Europe and “Shame Munster Rugby” and if you win you come 6th and “Shame Munster Rugby” but I think it was a real no win situation but I think we learned a lot about ourselves. We scored 10 tries and got 10 points in those two games, we sold out Musgrave Park, Thomond Park was nearly full, and they were really positive events for us despite where we finished up. I think guys like Johnny Holland and Rory Scannell came through as being really important for us. They came of age in those games, for two young fellas, they were outstanding.
‘In terms of training this year we’ve tried to look back on last season and see where “where and why” we were poor and take confidence that we can be really good when we had to be at the end of the season and for us it’s just being able to do that more consistently at home.’
From inside the group are you noticing a big change in the approach to maybe the wider game plan that Rassie is trying to implement?
‘Yeah he [Rassie] has made a few changes to our attack structure and how we’re trying to attack. Rugby is quite a simple game at the end of the day so you can’t try and reinvent the wheel but he’s making few subtle changes that will hopefully benefit players that we have. We have a lot of really exciting backs that we want to give good ball to and I think the pack have to take a lot of responsibility. [The] scrum, line out, mall last year at times weren’t up to scratch and you’ve got guys like Keith Earls and Simon Zebo, some of the best back three players in the world, you get them the ball with time and space and they’ll do the job for you so, yes, he has brought in a few changes, we haven’t reinvented the wheel. That’s why having Axel staying on board was so important because Rassie has learned a huge amount off him. Axel is one of the most passionate and intelligent, knowledgeable rugby people you will ever meet, so as head coach he’s now getting a lot more face time with guys, with players, he’s spending a lot more time reviewing trainings, reviewing games with fellas. For example Gavin Coombes, he’s 18, he was training with us for the preseason, he’s first cousins with the O’Dovavan brothers, the rowers. He has had a lot of work with Axel in preseason which he wouldn’t have had last year because Axel was off dealing with you lot and other bits a pieces so it frees up him to do more coaching and as you can see Rassie deals with the media really well, he’s like a duck to water with it and he’s looking after the bigger picture things with Munster Rugby so yeah, so far so good but we haven’t played many games yet.”
First up this year, Scarlets, what are your thoughts on that?
‘Scarlets is one of the hardest places to go, we were in a position at the end of last season, where thankfully we were playing them at home and we got the win but it was a very difficult game. We haven’t had many results over in Scarlets over the last few years so is a tough one first up. With a new coaching group, we’re trying to change a few things which will take a while to get right so Rassie and Jaq have done this multiple times with other teams so they’re not expecting miracles, we are still hoping to go over to Scarlets and get a win but for us it’s more about our performance and how we put ourselves across. Look it’s a results based business and we need to get results but we focus on that side of it massively.
Is there a sense that sides don’t know what to expect from Munster this year?
‘Yeah, that can be of benefit but you play one or two games and the analysis is at such a level that people will figure it out. We’ve Cardiff on the second week and I’m pretty sure they’ll have half an idea of how we’re trying to attack, unless it’s like the conditions we had against Zebre the other night where it doesn’t matter what the hell you’re trying to play, it’s just scrum and mall. But what we’re trying to play isn’t where we want to be in 12 months’ time, it’s a profession. Connacht as an example, their third year under Pat Lambe last year, they were outstanding, it took them 3 years to get there, so it will take us a while to get to where we want to get to but baby steps.’
Rassie, looking ahead, is there any update on the possible replacement for Francis, are you guys looking for a few options? Have you heard from the IRFU?
‘We are working closely with the IRFU, with David and Joe on most of the stuff so we are talking on a weekly, daily about other stuff as well not just replacements, it’s the internationals players in camps it’s the 7’s squad, the movement of players, those kind of things. Francis was definitely a surprise for us we didn’t expect his injury to take him out for another 3-4 months but as I said last week to some of the guys, we have to give some of the younger guys a proper chance and some guys had an opportunity last Friday, which they took well and there’s great potential there. But we also have to be realistic, we did lose a lot of experience with Francis, so we’re looking at, everybody is talking about Jaco Taute, he is one go the guys that we are trying to talk to the IRFU about and they are definitely supportive to try and help us but it that experience. So we are looking for a short-term backup to have experience in that position without neglecting the young talent that is coming through. There is a lot of things to sort out there, a short term loans from another province, players have got families, work permit, there is a lot of things that must happen so that is why at this stage there is a little bit of speculation out there but there’s nothing signed sealed and organised of yet’
You guys are obviously looking for someone like Jaco to come in, but you haven’t heard that it might be a thing where the IRFU are trying to push somebody from another province onto you guys, would that be the case?
‘The discussion so far have been “we’re trying to replace what we had” [NIQ?] we have to have this role experience wise and for only that period of time so we’re looking for a fit into that. It’s been positive from the IRFU, common sense has prevailed, so I’m happy. Nobody is pushing anything.
In terms of the new captain, are you looking for a week 3 return for POM?
‘Yes, at week 3. He’s on track with his rehab, he had a setback about 3 months ago. He was at one stage looking close so going on the Irish tour of SA and then he had little bit of a setback but since then he’s been on track so hopefully he [will be] ready for the third game.’
Was it an easy decision to pick Peter, as the existing captain when you arrived, to give him that job again?
‘Yes, without a doubt, it wasn’t tough. The seniors players, obviously we involved the team in that, it wasn’t just me and Axel and the other coaches saying “listen Peter you’re the captain” it was a collective from the group, we had all input and yes other leaders, senior players supported 100% and that makes it an easy choice.
What’s the one thing that people are saying to you ahead of the new season?
‘There’s a lot of work to get done from my side, our first priority is now to try and get into the winning ways with the senior side. But obviously being around in the community and playing in Waterford, see in the normal fan on the street and talking to everybody, there’s expectations, I think people see it as a daunting task and it’s a long road ahead, we seem to think there’s so much potential and if we can maximize potential from the coaches to the players fully, we can reassess in December and see where we’re going with this but what I’ve seen and I’ve haven’t worked with the players on the level of stress in match situations, the half time talk of a player and see how he reacts when its wet, you there’s different things. But [what I’ve] seen in the training sessions, mentally and physically and talent wise, I think we’re up there with some of the best teams I’ve coached but there can be other failures that I might not see now, so people see it as daunting but I see it as a massive challenge and an opportunity.’
Looking at the fixtures, for the European Cup, you guys gave better times, a lot more Saturday games at Thomond, so is that a big thing of bringing back that Thomond Park factor, have you watched games at Thomond in the past and thought this is what I wasn’t to recreate?
‘That’s one of the reasons I wanted to coach here. When I was playing and watching and coaching in SA before the games were televised, you would know about Munster. Everybody now knows about Connacht and Leinster and the other teams but everybody new about Munster. It’s obviously special what we saw on TV, so it’s special. I would love to experience that, so yes, without a doubt.
Is Tyler getting back to full fitness?
‘Tyler will be in the mix for this weekend for the practice match against Worcester on Friday.
On Thomond, how do you go about building that fervor, because I think there was a dip in ticket sales from the Limerick area especially?
‘I’ve coached in the freestate where when we started out there with the Cheetahs, there were 5,000 and when we were winning Currie Cups it was 45,000 every game. The same with the Stormers, I think they may be the exception where people keep on supporting through the bad times but I think currently [there are] so many negative and financial problems for some families that maybe they want to be associated with a winning team, you know, you want to have a feel good feeling when you go to that match, you want to walk away feeling as a winner. The brand [of rugby] is important, unfortunately the nuts and bolts is if you win you’ll get crowds in. That’s our responsibility from playing and coaching and everybody’s point of side, the brand would be important but I’ve seen teams who win ugly and still get great crowds, so I think crowd numbers goes with winning and as Axel right said, sometimes it’s the bounce of a ball and you miss out on a payoff and there a hell of a negative attitude towards the team. Sometimes that a decision makes you win a game and there’s a nice vibe. You look at Australia/Scotland last year, the last kick of the game, that’s the margin and Michael Cheika was the coach of the year last year because of that, the kick was kicked over. This year he’s got a tough record, but that’s unfortunately what professional sport is.’
What style can we expect from Munster this year?
‘I’m nervous to tell people this, this forward orientated kicking game mindset that a lot of people talk about, the pass being most successful and then people are asking are you going to run into people. We sat together as a coaching/players and said “guys let’s look at the different facet of the game, kicking, passing, breakdown and why do we have as players, what can we do well” and we worked out a philosophy which we’ve been coaching and trying now for 8 weeks. A little bit of a game on Friday night and hopefully this Friday. I’m nervous to say, “This is what you’re going to see” because I don’t this is uniquely like those guys or these guys, and I think it’s unique to Munster. Hopefully it will come through in the games and we’ll say “This is the Munster way” but it’s not molded onto somebody it’s molded in our group I’ll put it that way.
The opening game, Scarlets away?
‘I don’t have the history, in a positive way, I don’t have the baggage of what goes on there, but the players tell me how daunting it is and the coaches know. They’ve got great coaching staff and I’ve went through their squad, they have a great squad, so it will be a challenge but [there is] a lot of tough games to come. I go a little bit blind for those games with the talent we have. Obviously its nerve racking next week to go into it but I’d be lying if I’m not because it will be a first experience, I’m used to Super Rugby Tri-Nations and those things, not so much to this. That’s why I came here.
Massive thanks and credit to Larry Power, Maedhbh Lewis, and #RugbyUnited.
Photo credit to #RugbyIreland.