As the curtain was drawn on Munster's season in Parma last Friday night, we take a look back at some of the highs and the lows of Rob Penney's maiden season in charge of the province. A season that has ultimately ended without a trophy but with plenty of positives in looking ahead to next season.
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Unfortunately there weren't too many positives to be taken from a campaign that was hugely disappointing. Munster's stuttering defeat over a winless Zebre side last Friday epitomised their domestic struggles. Munster finished the season in sixth position, twelve points outside of the play off places. Ten defeats over the course of the competition was far too many and cost them any hopes they had of making it to the latter stages.
Two defeats in their opening five league games seemed to set tone for a campaign that never really got going. Back-to-back defeats to arch rivals Leinster furthered Munster's poor record against last season's European Champions but it was the defeat to Glasgow in March that left a real sour taste. Shipping 51 points to a side who Munster had already comfortably beaten by 28 points earlier in the season was hugely frustrating both from the players and the supporters point of view.
Although last week's narrow win over Zebre didn't reflect all that well on paper, there were plenty of the younger guys included in that squad and the character which they showed to come back and finish the season with a win away from home will hopefully stand to them ahead of next season's campaign.
If the league campaign was a disappointment, the European front was anything but. Munster were handed a tough draw with Racing Metro, Saracens and last season's semi-finalist, Edinburgh all vying to qualify.
Munster began their campaign with a bitterly disappointing defeat in Paris - a game which was there for the taking were it not for a couple of costly individual errors. Plenty of people had written Munster off at this stage but in true fashion they bounced back the following week with a 33-0 bonus point win over Edinburgh. A lacklustre first half performance was quickly followed by a frenetic finish led by an Ian Keatley inspired display.
The back to back meetings with Saracens was always going to the crunch week of Pool One. Ronan O'Gara edged his opposite number Owen Farrell in a kicking duel at Thomond Park before the Engand and future Lions out-half had the final say at Vicarage Road. The defeat left Munster with a mountain to climb if they were to advance from the pool but a gritty winning performance in Edinburgh left them knowing that a bonus point win against Racing Metro would almost certainly give them a 'best runners up' spot in the quarter finals. And the duly obliged. An outstanding Simon Zebo hat-trick propelled the Red Army to a record 14th European Cup quarter final.
Few gave Munster a prayer against a much fancied Harlequins side but Ronan O'Gara rolled back the years at The Stoop and delivered a performance of such class that we have almost come to expect from the man. Paul O'Connell's return to European action inspired both his team mates and the supporters that they could go to Montpellier and again upset the odds against tournament favourites, Clermont Auvergne. Their progress to the semi-final also equaled Toulouse's record of reaching the last four a remarkable 10 times.
The game against the powerful French side proved to be a step too far but the performance that Munster gave will live long in any neutral fans' memory. In truth, had Munster been more clinical, they could have snatched the win against all the odds. Reaching the Heineken Cup semi final was a massive achievement for a side that is in transition. Admittedly they won't always have the likes of O'Gara and O'Connell to drag them through the mire but the experience that the younger players will have gained from the campaign will be priceless in years to come.
Rob Penney has come in for some unfair criticism in his first season in charge of Munster. He arrived in the province with his own ideas and set about stamping his mark on the side from the word go. Although his adventurous style of play hasn't always worked out, Munster fans seem happy to allow him time, as long as they see results in the next couple of years. You cannot judge a new coach after just one season in charge and thankfully rugby doesn't follow the football 'hire and fire' culture. Question marks do remain over Penney's stye of play on the big occasions when it seemed apparent that Munster reverted back to their old style of playing the percentages in both the quarter and semi final of the Heineken Cup - although Penney rejected this notion.
Credit must be given to the New Zealander for sticking by his word in looking to introduce the younger players into the first team squad. Penney handed Dave Kilcoyne his Heineken Cup debut in the opening game of the Pool stages and the prop has gone from strength to strength since then. Mike Sherry became one of the youngest ever players to captain Munster, another sure sign of Penney's emphasis on youth.
Player of the Season
Plenty of players have stood out for Munster this season. Since making his European debut in Paris, Dave Kilcoyne has been outstanding in the Red jersey which prompted his inclusion in the Irish squad. The Limerick man has since gone on to win six caps for his country in what was a hugely successful season for him. Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan were another two who enjoyed a successful year but for me, the player of the season was Tommy O'Donnell.
The blindside flanker has been a colossus in the back row all season. A permanent fixture in the first XV, O'Donnell has had to bide his time before getting his opportunity with Munster but his patience has certainly paid off. His performance in the quarter final against Harlequins when he came up against a potential Lions captain in waiting was nothing short of phenomenal. O'Donnell's display was such that he effectively ruined Robshaw's hopes of touring with the Lions, let alone captaining the side. He is a certainty to be included in the Ireland squad for their summer tour of North America where he looks set to win his first of many caps. Should O'Donnell continue his brilliant form, he will be one of the players at the fore front of Joe Schmidt's mind for the November Tests.
Next Season's Expectations
Munster's league form is something which will obviously have to be addressed. In what was a debut season for Rob Penney, he has now had time to implement his ideas into the side and fans' expectations will be high going into next season.
This current Munster side have proved that they are more than capable of still mixing it with the big names of European rugby. With a couple of new additions to the squad, they will be hoping to perhaps go one better next time out.
Ronan O'Gara has still yet to announce whether or not he will play for one final season. If he does decide to hang up the boots, Ian Keatley will step into the role. The former Connacht player has impressed when he has deputised for O'Gara but there are still lingering question marks of whether he is the long term replacement.
Munster certainly need to look a bringing in a new centre - a fleet-footed player who is willingly to go passed defenders in midfield. Downey and Laulala enjoyed a fine end to the season but Munster need to see more consistency from both. Andrew Conway has already been confirmed to be signing from Leinster. It remains to be seen what his best position is but he certainly provides an exciting option at outside centre.
CJ Stander hasn't quite hit the heights since arriving from South Africa. With apparent problems over his registration for the Heineken Cup and the fact that he arrived on the back of the Blue Bulls' Currie Cup campaign, he should come back refreshed and a stronger player for next season. His two tries, including an 80 metre score on his home debut against Glasgow more than introduced himself to his new supporters. They will be hoping to see more of the same next season.
Plenty of positives can be taken from Munster's 2012-13 season and the fans can be optimistic about what the next might bring. With Rob Penney at the helm, Munster can be safe in the knowledge that the young home grown players are and will continue to get their opportunity to shine. The future is bright.