Munster Review: How Good Were Munster in 2014?
After a shaky start to life under Anthony Foley, things certainly seem to looking up for Munster. Things seemed to be going very well when Rob Penney surprisingly left the southern province.
Another Heineken Cup semi final was a fantastic result for Munster, while their semi final appearance in the Pro 12 represents the minimum acceptable result for them. Several players started to step up, and the double over Leinster reflects a growing change in the Irish rugby landscape.
Qualification for the knockout stage of the Champions Cup is still a possibility, but it would need a win over Saracens in the Allianz.
Best Match Munster v Saracens Champions Cup Round 2
Munster were at their intensive best against the Heineken Cup finalists back in October when the Londoners travelled to Limerick. Munster had the intensity in their eyes from the start, and as a consequence, it never looked like they would lose. It was reminiscint of the look Padraig Harrington used to show when he was in his prime on the back 9 on a Sunday, or when Roy Keane meant business.
Munster went through the Saracens defense with reckless abandon, and overpowered the London side, denying them a bonus point in the process. It was an extremely good performance, and represented a turning point in their fortunes under Foley.
Best Try Andrew Conway v Edinburgh
Free flowing tries are always good to watch, and the hands displayed in this try highlighted what former Canterbury boss Rob Penney brought to the province. Andrew Conway was in a rich vein of form, as exemplified by his support running from CJ Stander's break. It's a very aesthetically pleasing try from start to finish.
Best Player Conor Murray
Conor Murray is the most improved player on the planet for the last 2 years. 2014 saw Murray's importance to Ireland and Munster increase no end, and while CJ Stander and Peter O'Mahony ran him close, he was Munster's best player in 2014. He has taken up a directing role for the province, and is central to all of the good aspects of their play.
Murray is vital to Munster's hopes going forward, and is developing into one of the top scrumhalves in world rugby.
Best Newcomer Duncan Casey
With so many hookers out injured for Munster, it's a relief that Casey has stepped up. Munster fans were miffed last November when Casey wasn't involved with the Ireland set-up, but his appearance at the Christmas camp reflects how well he's played this year.
A relative unknown last January, Casey is now firmly in Foley's mind, and with Mike Sherry and Damian Varley to come back for Munster, Casey may have already done enough to earn the starting job for his home province.
Munster have quite a young squad now, and after losing a lot of key players through the years, it's looking like it's time for them to start making progress in European rugby again. Their first target will have to be Pro 12 success, and with players of the calibre of Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray, Simon Zebo and CJ Stander, they have the bones of a great squad.
One concern is depth, but they do seem to have enough of that in some areas. As long as the likes of Murray and O'Connell remain fit, you'd give Munster more than a fair shout against anyone on their day. Hopefully Foley has designs on trying to solve their midfield dilemma, with two or three signings needed, especially if Pat Howard doesn't stay to build on a decent start in red.
Munster are in a good position to improve over the next 12 months, but I wouldn't expect any silverware to end up in Limerick just yet. Qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions Cup from this position would be a great result, and they should be aiming for a home playoff berth for the Pro 12 at the very least, which will give them as good a chance as any to make the final.
One To Watch- Andrew Conway
At the start of his career, Andrew Conway used to be a fair weather player. His best rugby invariably came in April and May when the ground firmed up and tries followed. Towards the end of this year though, Conway continued to play good rugby for his new province. With talent like Gerhard van den Heever, Simon Zebo and Keith Earls around, Conway will need to make the most of his chances if he is to hang around in Munster, and he's beginning to go about it in the right manner.
I'm backing Conway to use 2015 to cement himself in the Munster 23, if not the Munster XV with Simon Zebo on the other flank.