All's not lost for Munster as Schmidt and Lam prove

All’s not lost for Munster as Schmidt and Lam prove

Another crucial game for Graham Rowntree and Munster. Just like next week and last week and the week before that.

Defeat against the Bulls, and the hole Munster currently find themselves in gets a little bit deeper. Win, and they can start pulling themselves back up above ground.

Particularly since last week’s defeat to Connacht, there’s a sense around the province that expectations for this season, at least, should be tempered, although there’s no suggestion that they should be altering their plans long term. Given the size of the Munster brand, fading into mediocrity can’t and wont be acceptable.

There’s no masking the fact that the early signs have been way below the standard expected of Munster, with their current form reminiscent of that infamous Manchester United tweet midway through the David Moyes season, describing how the manager wants them “to improve in a number of areas, including passing, creating chances and defending.”

The comparisons to Manchester United’s decline have been made towards Munster in recent seasons, although following Johann van Graan’s time in charge would be a damn sight less daunting than Fergie.

Thankfully for Rowntree, Prendergast, Leamy and Kyriacou, the gulf in finances between rugby and football will likely allow them more time to address their problems than Moyes had. Or so you’d hope.

Rowntree isn’t the first provincial coach to find things rough early on, and he definitely won’t be the last, but he doesn’t have to look far to find solace.

Joe Schmidt was a man under pressure at Leinster early on in 2010 after a shock defeat to Benetton

“One suspects it is too late for Schmidt to get the team back on the rails. The Magners League is no barometer of Heineken Cup success but I suspect this is a coach that has lost the dressing room.”

George Hook was never afraid to pick a side early, but this will surely be one of the columns he’d like to have back.

“Listless Leinster will come undone in Heineken group”, was the headline of his column in the Sunday Independent on 3 October 2010, after Leinster struggled to find their feet under their new Kiwi coach, Joe Schmidt.

In fairness, Hook wouldn’t have been the only one to have a cut off Schmidt in his early Leinster days.

Three defeats in his first four games (sound familiar?), one of which was a 29-13 loss away to Benetton in Italy, saw the former Clermont assistant feel the heat early in his Leinster tenure.

Glasgow and Edinburgh also handed him defeats in that period, before a scrappy 13-9 victory against Munster broke the dam. It started a six-game winning streak, and while their form dipped slightly mid-season, it proved to be nothing more than a speed bump.

In defiance of Hook’s headline, a second Heineken Cup title for the province followed that summer, as they produced one of the game’s great comebacks in the final, and while they were beaten in the Magners League (now URC) final by Munster, Schmidt added another Champions Cup, Pro12 and Challenge Cup title before moving on to the Irish job in 2013.

While Schmidt inherited a squad filled with some of Irish rugby’s greats, their current coach Leo Cullen found himself in surroundings much more similar to Rowntree when he was handed the reins after Matt O’Connor’s departure in 2015.

Cullen had been made interim coach following the Australian’s departure in May, before that appointment was made permanent just before the 2015/16 season. Like Rowntree, it was his first head coaching role, although Cullen admittedly spent far less time as an assistant.

Leo Cullen’s first season in charge of Leinster saw them lose five of their six pool games in Europe

And while his start to the Pro12 wasn’t as startling as Munster’s this season – two wins and two defeats in his first four games – their disastrous Champions Cup campaign left many wondering if the province’s former captain was out of his depth.

Those questions hung around for most of the season, particularly after they were beaten by Connacht (we’ll get to them shortly) in the final of the Pro12.

Another trophyless season followed in 2016/17, although their run to a Champions Cup semi-final showed they were moving in the right direction, before their double in 2018 was followed by another three consecutive domestic titles.

In anyone’s language, two wins in 11 games to start a new job would be enough to sound the alarms, particularly when both of those wins were against Zebre.

But that was the story of Pat Lam’s first few months in charge of Connacht in 2013. Incredibly, that dismal run of form was broken with a famous victory away to Toulouse in December, although normal service was resumed not long after, as they plodded their way along to a 10th-place finish in the league.

Tenth spot would be hard for Rowntree to sell this season, even in a larger 16-team league, but Lam’s Connacht are proof of the benefits of playing the long game. Tenth became seventh in Lam’s second season, before they produced one of the most unlikely title successes in 2016.

As Lam’s successor found out, sometimes a bad start just gets worse.

Kieran Keane’s single season in charge of Connacht saw them finish seventh in their Pro14 conference

Kieran Keane had big shoes to fill when he replaced the Bristol-bound Lam in 2017, and he couldn’t make them fit.

In spite of some good results in the Challenge Cup, he started with five defeats from six in the league, finishing second from bottom in their Pro14 conference.

While the results were bad, the New Zealander’s gruff demeanour seemed worlds away from Lam’s warm personality.

Luckily for Rowntree, his personality doesn’t seem to clash with those at Munster, and barring an even steeper decline in form, the chances of him joining Keane as a one-and-done head coach seems to be low.

The fightback has to start soon though, and it doesn’t even have to be with rugby from the gods. A win of any kind against the Bulls is the first step towards rebuilding confidence, even if the bigger games against Leinster and Ulster are still to come.

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