by Brendan Cole
Are Munster ready to bounce back? Even more than Leinster, the southern province endured a massively disappointing end to last season.
Worryingly, they had been shaky all season long – the perennial scrum issue was even more of a handicap than usual but there were also surprising dips in other areas.
The ruck, the heartbeat of Munster's greatest achievements, was particularly leaden. The failure of expensive Springbok recruit Jean De Villiers to show the kind of consistency the Munster backline needed - contrast his occasional and admittedly brilliant flashes of class with the leadership of a Rua Tipoki – also hampered their challenge.
Though his breaks were hugely impressive, De Villiers simply did not cross the gainline often enough and lost the ball too often when he did.
Arguably, the backline's inability to penetrate fed back through the team. Traditionally, this Munster pack has needed a target set in front of it.
This season, Wian Du Preez return should at least provide some stability in the scrum but Paul O’Connell’s continuing injury problem means the man who has set the bar for effort and endeavour for the Munster forwards over the last few years will not be there, at least to begin with.
On the other hand, the return of Denis Leamy to the back row will feel like a new signing and there are plenty of other leaders among numbers one to eight. Donnacha Ryan must kick on and establish himself as a top Heineken Cup level forward this year, and the hope is that Anthony Foley will bring through one or two more from among the ranks.
O'Gara and O'Leary - need centre pair to set targets?
There are also issues in the backs. Ronan O’Gara and Tomas O’Leary did not have their best season last year – consistency was lacking with O'Leary's passing in and out, and O'Gara's physical slightness and lack of a break occasionally a weakness.
The centre and full-back combinations also failed to fire. Given the problems inside, it is no surprise that the wings struggled to be effective.
Option selection and passing – with De Villiers surprisingly ineffective over long range – let Munster down badly last year and allowed opposition teams to focus their energy on the action around O’Gara.
It may be expecting a lot of Sam Tuitupou – signed from relegated Worcester – and Leicester recruit Johne Murphy to fix all that but Munster need a combination that can draw a defence, move the ball and bust through it as the situation demands.
Somehow, Munster must find a way to reignite their play around outside centre; but the ingredients to do so may be present and the early signs are that a good diagnosis has been made and a smart solution applied.
If they can, problems inside should prove far easier to fix.
MAGNERS LEAGUE PREDICTION: 2nd