Rowntree has re-energised Munster with URC success won against the odds

SOMETIMES, THE RIGHT person just happens to find themselves in the right place at the right time. Munster had never planned for Graham Rowntree to be their head coach this season, but plans change, and in his first year at the helm the former Leicester prop has re-energised a sleeping giant of Irish sport.

A season that started with Munster winning just two of their first seven games yesterday came to a stunning conclusion as the province landed their first trophy in 12 years. It’s a success that came against the odds and ahead of schedule, but one that is fully deserved.

It has been remarkable to watch the squad’s growth this year and the future now looks extremely bright for a province who for so long had been burdened by the weight of history.

rowntree has re-energised munster with urc success won against the odds

Munster head coach Graham Rowntree.

And to think how different it could all have been. If Johann van Graan hadn’t triggered a release clause in his contract to join Bath, the South African would now be closing the book on his sixth season at Thomond Park. Instead, the top job became available and Rowntree put himself forward. He made it clear how much he wanted a job that had lost some of its lustre of the years, and was met with a long, frustrating silence as Munster and the IRFU waited to assess their options.

Given Rowntree had never been a head coach before, it’s easy to understand any reservations that surrounded his appointment, but what the Englishman did bring to the job was enthusiasm.

Without downplaying his other qualities as a coach, Rowntree gets Munster. Just listen to the way he speaks of life in Limerick, or how he quickly paid tribute to “the people we’ve lost” after yesterday’s win. Just look at the people he brought in around him – former Munster player Mike Prendergast to run the attack, former Munster player Denis Leamy to drill the defence and former Munster player Andi Kyriacou stepping up from the Academy to take charge of the forwards.

Rowntree’s clear respect for that Munster identity made him an instant hit with fans. That buys you patience when the results aren’t coming.


And it’s worth remembering just how challenging those first months were. As Munster changed the way they train, the performances, at times, looked alarmingly disjointed. Game after game, Rowntree had the difficult job of stepping in front of the media and asking the fans for patience. Then a famous night at Páirc Uí Chaoimh ignited something. From there, Munster won nine of their next 12. Even still, it’s not long since there were genuine concerns around Munster missing out on Champions Cup rugby next season.

Yet at all the while he appeared at ease with the task at hand. It’s not unusual for Rowntree to head out and share a pint with travelling fans on the eve of away games. He appreciates his position and is genuinely touched by level of support the club receives.

Then came the remarkable run of form away from home, which culminated in yesterday’s brilliant win in Cape Town.

rowntree has re-energised munster with urc success won against the odds

Munster s Craig Casey and Jeremy Loughman celebrate.

Worthy champions? You betcha. Sure, Munster lost seven URC games this season and finished fifth in the URC table, but just look at the games they had to win to lift the trophy. The road to glory could hardly have been more challenging.

In April they became the first team to beat the Stormers in Cape Town since December 2021. They backed that up with a gutsy draw at the Sharks. Next, they went to Glasgow and became the first team to leave Scotstoun with a win in well over a year. Their reward was the game nobody wanted – Leinster at Aviva Stadium. We all remember what happened there.

To follow that up with another win in Cape Town against the defending champions makes this one of the most impressive title wins across the various iterations of this competition, but even if they had fallen short at the DHL Stadium, they would be able to reflect on a highly encouraging season which injected a renewed sense of energy into the club.

In Cape Town yesterday they should have won by more. They crossed for five tries but only two stood. They caused the Stormers all sorts of problems before a second half wobble, which set them up for one of those typically heroic defensive stands.

When Tadhg Beirne won the turnover which eventually sealed the deal, the TV cameras flashed to the coaches box – Leamy and Prendergast jumping for joy as Rowntree’s head fell into his hands.

This success has been a triumph of their coaching. Munster’s attacking game is both more ambitious and more clinical – the evidence was there in the brilliant team move which led to John Hodnett’s match-winning try. Their defence is solid and their fitness is improved – look at how they held out the Stormers maul and rallied in the final quarter against the defending champions.

The players have been emboldened to back themselves and across the board, they are better than they were 12 months ago. In just one season, Rowntree and his coaching team have brought this group to a new level and the exciting thing is that there is still room for further improvement.

rowntree has re-energised munster with urc success won against the odds

John Hodnett capped a fine season with a player of the match performance.

The back three of Mike Haley, Calvin Nash and Shane Daly have been outstanding. Jean Kleyn is playing some of the best rugby of his career, as is Peter O’Mahony (again). Jack Crowley – one of a handful of young players embracing the opportunity to take on more leadership – has thrived at 10. Hodnett capped a fine season with a player of the match award in a URC final.

Hard, bold decisions have paid off. Conor Murray and Keith Earls were both dropped for key fixtures only to come back in and play important parts across the closing run of games. Other coaches may have pushed Ben Healy aside once his impending exit was confirmed but instead, he’s played a key role and got to sign off on a high.

The challenge now is to build on this success. After so many years of pain, Munster can call themselves a champion team again.

It feels incredibly on-brand that their first trophy in over a decade arrived at the end of a season where expectations had been unusually low. Not that you could ever accuse Rowntree of lacking belief. Right man, right place, right time.

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