Graham Rowntree believes Munster's slow start to the season has toughened them up, and they're starting to reap the rewards for sticking to their plan.

After five defeats from their first seven games, the province found themselves in a major battle to secure Champions Cup rugby next season, but after a morale-boosting victory against a South Africa Select XV during the Autumn Nations Series window, they've followed it up with back-to-back bonus point wins in the URC to bring themselves back into the top half of the table.

And with their season now moving back on an upwards trajectory, they can give it an even greater boost in the coming weeks, starting with this Sunday's Heineken Champions Cup opener against Toulouse at Thomond Park (live on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player).

The recent wins have given us a glimpse into the attacking shape Mike Prendergast has been licensed with implementing, while we've also seen them use their maul as a weapon in both attack and defence.

But Rowntree says he also believes his side have become calloused by their struggles early in the campaign.

"I think we're better for the experience, we had a tough start to the league," he said.

"We weren't a million miles off. I mean if we lost, they had only just beaten us. A lot of things was…we were killing ourselves around downfall, where we were getting used to a new way of doing things.

"But I think we are hardened for it, if that’s an expression I can use, we are hardened for those experiences."

And Rowntree (above) confident they won't revert back into their sluggishness from the start of the season.

"I don't think we will fall back into our old ways. I think we learned a lot trying to get a new style going on the field, a new way of training; we’ve learned a lot, I don’t think we’ll fall back.

"I think you tend to fall back in life if you become complacent and there’s no way that we’ll ever be doing that. I mean, our league position, we can’t afford anything like that. We’ll just keep looking forward, excited by a new competition, excited that we’re getting some payback for all the hard work we’ve been doing on the field."

Dealing with the five-time champions Toulouse will require more than thick skin, and the head coach admits as much.

The French side have knocked Munster out of Europe in each of the last two seasons, with last year's agonising defeat in a placekicking competition after a 24-24 draw at the Aviva Stadium providing a hangover from which their season never recovered.

As always, how Munster handle Antoine Dupont will be crucial to their chances of getting off to a winning start, and if they can do a similar job on him as they did at the Aviva in April, they'll be on the right track, with their back row of Jack O'Donoghue, Peter O'Mahony and Alex Kendellen limiting his impact in that quarter-final.

The former World Player of the Year was initially due to be suspended for this game following his red card against South Africa during the Autumn Nations Series, before his ban was halved on appeal.

And Rowntree was brutally honest when asked if his spirits had been lifted at the prospect of Dupont being absent, and if they'd dropped when his appeal was successful.

"Yes and yes, unfortunately. That's typical of our luck," he said with a wry smile.

"If you're going to advance in this competition you’ve got to deal with players like him, and we spent a lot of time looking at him this week.

"He’s a proper jack in the box. He’s good at everything. People underestimate his kicking game. For all his livewire activity at the base of the ruck and his pass, his kicking game is exceptional."

Keith Earls could make his return for the province this weekend. The veteran wing returned to full training in recent weeks after a hamstring injury, but didn't feature in the wins against Connacht and Edinburgh.

And while Simon Zebo is set to miss the coming weeks with a knee injury, Rowntree says the form of both Calvin Nash and Shane Daly is giving him some difficult decisions to make - albeit some welcome difficult decisions.

"They're good headaches. Everyone keeps telling me, good headaches.

"Yeah, we’ve got some guys coming back and we’ve certainly got those back-three guys in form. We’ve got Mike Haley who should be available, he’s still completing return to play concussion protocols. Patrick Campbell, you know, [Liam] Coombes, [Conor] Phillips, all of the lads. We’ve had a good look at a lot of players and form counts for everything but I’m delighted with the resources we’ve got back there."

Rowntree also says there are plans to extend the contract of John Ryan, who made his 200th appearance for the province against Edinburgh on Friday.

The 34-year-old rejoined Munster on a short-term deal in October, after being released by Premiership side Wasps when they entered administration.

"Potentially, potentially. We're looking at it," he said, when asked if there was an option to keep the tighthead at the province for longer.

"He's been excellent, excellent. That happened very quickly. He became available, sad state of affairs that was with Wasps, a great club, a club I’ve had plenty of history with.

"He became available and we needed cover in that position and he’s fitted straight in. He’s been good to have around is John, good craic and he’s playing well. He’s durable as well, rarely gets injured and his game input’s huge.

"He’s stealing balls in the breakdown, he’s scrummaging well and he’s adapted to how we’re playing as well, he can play ball as well. So I’m delighted that he’s with us."

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