A bit like Liverpool but in a different sport, Munster haven’t got off to their usual strong start in the competition, and after four games they are a long way from the top four position they usually occupy. Following a change of coach, with Graham Rowntree coming in for Johann van Graan, the former Springbok assistant who is now coaching Bath, talk of a bright new beginning for the team from Limerick has proved anything but.
After three defeats in four games, two of those losses coming at the hands of Welsh clubs, Munster are listing at 12th on the overall standings, four places below play-off qualification. They thought they were righting the ship when they beat Zebre Parma 10 days ago, but were back in the mire this past weekend when they lost to Connacht in the Irish derby in Galway.
It is a desperate situation made perhaps more desperate by what comes next - a visit to Thomond Park by the Vodacom Bulls, who last year made it all the way to the Vodacom URC final.
The team from Pretoria were poor in their surprisingly one-sided defeat to Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun Stadium in the fourth round and will come to Munster in a determined mood.
There again, Munster will be even more desperate, and they do have the advantage of playing at a home venue that doesn’t tend to be kind to visiting teams.
“We are spoiled as players and coaches to have such great support as we do with the Munster fans. I’m sure they’ll be right behind us at Thomond which is now a huge game,” said Rowntree after his team’s 20-11 defeat at the hands of Connacht.
“It’s always going to be a huge game, particularly against the Bulls. We know what’s coming from the Bulls so we drive on. We’ll look at this game Monday, fix things, drive training, see what selection brings. We’ve got some guys coming back from South Africa and we’ll look forward to the next game after Monday.”
The former England prop has a lot of expectation around him as he starts out in his new role as head coach but says the intense pressure on him is no worse than he anticipated: “No, it’s tough. That’s coaching. It’s fixing things, finding solutions, moving forward; fixing them, working to the next game.
“I’ve been around long enough. Obviously, it’s a different context being the head coach but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
Munster’s problems so far this season have been manifold, but primarily there has been a lack of penetration on attack, there have been way too many handling errors and they have a poor record with their discipline, having scored 52 penalties, an average of 13 per match, over their four games. Rowntree says much of that comes down to just trying new things.
“We’ve changed how we’re doing things," said Rowntree.
"We’ve not reinvented the wheel, but we’ve changed things and I can see the changes, the improvements coming through. But we just have to eradicate errors, eradicate penalties, improve our discipline. It’s my job to do that, and the coaches, and to manage those young coaches, it’s my job. We’ll keep doing that, that’s all we can physically do, day in, day out.”
In contrast to Munster, the other members of the so-called Irish big three, Leinster and Ulster, are flying at present, with Leinster at the top of the log and Ulster having regained winning momentum ahead of their trip to South Africa, where they face the Emirates Lions and Cell C Sharks, with a comprehensive win over the Ospreys.
Ulster ran in seven tries against the Welsh club and were never threatened as they built up a solid 28-10 lead at the break before pressing on to the victory in the second half.
Having fallen to Leinster last week, it was exactly the response Ulster wanted before they welcome back their Emerging Ireland contingent and integrate Rory Sutherland into the squad having announced the Scotland and British and Irish Lions prop's arrival on a short-term deal earlier on Saturday.
Meanwhile Italian rugby is looking increasingly healthier. The Zebre team that lost to the DHL Stormers in Parma at the weekend was understrength due to injury, but the other Italian team, Benetton, properly flexed muscles with their comprehensive win over what was hitherto considered a rejuvenated Dragons team following their win over Munster and narrow loss to the Cell C Sharks.
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship results
Connacht 20 Munster 11
Edinburgh 19 Emirates Lions 22
Zebre Parma 20 DHL Stormers 37
Leinster 54 Cell C Sharks 34
Scarlets 10 Cardiff Rugby 16
Ulster 47 Ospreys 17
Glasgow Warriors 35 Vodacom Bulls 21
Benetton 34 Dragons 14