Three reasons why Munster can claim their first PRO12 title since 2011

Three reasons why Munster can claim their first PRO12 title since 2011

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For a rugby club with the history and stature of Munster, six years is a long time to go without a domestic title.

But they have been irresistible at times this term and will head into the PRO12 play-offs full of confidence after topping the regular season table.

A sparkling 19 wins from 22 games helped them to the summit and they now prepare to welcome fourth-placed Ospreys to Thomond Park on Saturday evening – comfortable in the knowledge that no side has ever lost a home PRO12 semi-final.

The last time Munster topped the table was the 2010-11 season, also the most recent campaign in which they lifted the PRO12 trophy.

That fact alone is basis enough to think they could match that feat this time around, but we’ve highlighted three other reasons why this will be the year they win the title for the first time since 2011.

Roaring Lions

There is game-changing quality throughout the Munster squad but a trio of their stars earned the ultimate honour of being named in the British & Irish Lions squad to tour New Zealand this summer.

One moment of magic can make all the difference in big matches and with Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander all donning the red jersey, Munster have three men who know how to produce when it matters most.

Murray has proven himself as THE premier scrum-half in the northern hemisphere with a string of sublime displays at domestic, European and international level for Ireland.

The fact he was still named as the Zurich Players’ Player of the Year by his peers, despite only recently returning from neck and shoulder injuries sustained during the Six Nations, shows how highly he is thought of.

Back-rowers O’Mahony and Stander are both fearsome ball-carriers and jackals at the breakdown, and the latter believes his side have learned from their Champions Cup semi-final loss to Saracens – one of few disappointments this term.

CJ Stander

Photo credit: Inpho

“What we have learned from that game, we have talked a lot about, and we just need to handle pressure a bit better and put more points on the board,” said Stander.

“We know what we need to do now to get to that point we want to be up there at that level again.

“There are a lot more guys pushing for that jersey now and it makes for great competition in the squad.”

Captain Fantastic

To call Billy Holland a talisman might be underselling it – Munster have not lost a game this season in which the lock has been their starting captain.

O’Mahony might be club skipper but with the flanker often otherwise engaged on international duty, Holland has stepped up spectacularly.

The 31-year-old was named in the PRO12 team of the season and that was more than deserved after a memorable campaign.

With 221, Holland made more tackles in the league than any other Munsterman, while his 45 lineouts won and seven steals also topped the club pile.

The talented second-rower also showed an ability to snatch possession at the breakdown with 11 turnovers won and he believes that the winning mentality now prominent around the province will stand them in good stead for the post-season.

“A lot of hard work went in over the last two years,” admitted Holland. “This isn’t just nine or ten months of hard work – it is a couple of years of hard work from all the coaches and players who have been here previously but last year, we were losing games that were tight.

“That is because there is a bit more confidence in the group and winning is a habit in the same way with losing – you can get a snowball effect.”

The Rassie effect

©INPHO/Donall Farmer

©INPHO/Donall Farmer

A key difference from the near-misses of the past few seasons is the presence of director of rugby Rassie Erasmus.

The South African has acclimatised to life in the northern hemisphere with ease since joining last summer and was named PRO12 Coach of the Season earlier this month for taking Munster back to the top of the table.

The former flanker is a born winner, instilling that mentality at Thomond Park, and also demonstrated his crisis management by adeptly dealing with the aftermath of the tragic passing of head coach and Munster legend Anthony Foley back in October.

From that heartbreak has emerged hope and while it may be over-simplifying matters to say that Foley’s death has provided added motivation for the squad, Erasmus has certainly proven his leadership to steady the ship following the tragedy.

The 44-year-old is signed on as director of rugby for at least another two years and if Munster do claim a first PRO12 crown since 2011 later this month, Erasmus will have been perhaps the most important reason why.

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