MUNSTER

The task never changes.

Just as it has been every year for Johann van Graan, breaking Munster's glass ceiling and bringing silverware to Thomond Park remains the number one priority.

It looked like they would end their 10-year wait for a trophy last term; They seemed to be the form team in the Pro14 before coming up well short against Leinster in the final at the RDS, barely landing a glove on the defending champions, who many thought were there for the taking.

The Pro14 Rainbow Cup brought similar false dawns; a hammering of Leinster put them in the driving seat before they were caught off guard by Connacht at Thomond Park.

The pressure is on Van Graan and his coaching team of Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree to deliver; with the South African entering the final year of the contract he extended in 2019.

Along with the high-profile coaching ticket, Van Graan has been provided with the resources on the pitch as well; World Cup winners Damian de Allende and RG Snyman, Simon Zebo's summer return from Paris, as well as Jason Jenkins, another tall and powerful South African forward brought in to replace the retiring CJ Stander.

But the question marks remain, both over their style of play and whether or not they have sufficient beef up front to take on Europe's best. Dave Kilcoyne is their only front row forward who is in Andy Farrell's first choice matchday squad for Ireland.

John Ryan has been in and out of the Irish group, while Niall Scannell hasn't featured for Ireland since the 2019 World Cup.

The other question is about their use of the ball, their gunslinging defeat against Toulouse showed they're capable of using it with some style, their Pro14 final defeat to Leinster only a week previously makes you question how willing they are to use it.


Last season: Beaten 16-6 by Leinster in Pro14 final, and finished second in Pro14 Rainbow Cup European division.

Total titles: 3

Head coach: Johann van Graan (fourth full season)


Johann van Graan: "We had a good look at our games from last season winning 20 out of 25, winning 10 out of 12 away and 10 out of 13 at home. We looked at all parts of our game.

"We did one or two things differently in the Rainbow Cup, and like every season looking to advance our game whether that's attack or defence or kicking game or breakdown or setpiece.

"We've been working pretty hard in training doing one or two things.

"We've got a very good mix in our backfield between some more experienced internationals and some young guns pushing through. In my view it’s a very well balanced squad.

"I think last season we played 53 lads, if you look at the amount of games that will take place over the season I'm pretty sure we’ll get a whole host of guys playing and back in our squad, so a lot of exciting young and old guys that will play for Munster through the year."

Key player: With CJ Stander now retired, last season's Player of the Year Gavin Coombes (above) will become even more important to his team’s cause this season. Granted, he may miss a few extra games for Munster if he continues to be involved with Ireland, but his ball-carrying ability and eye for the tryline makes him the perfect replacement at the base of the scrum.

One to watch: Thomas Ahern (above) made seven appearances for the province last season, and looked at home in senior rugby. The 6' 9" lock looks physically ready to compete at the highest level, and has the pace of a lithe flanker. With Billy Holland's retirement, he could be set for an increased role in the team.


Players In: Simon Zebo returns to his home team following a three-year spell at Racing 92 in Paris. Rowan Osborne will provide scrum-half cover after joining from Leinster and versatile forward Jason Jenkins has signed from the Bulls. Ireland-qualified hooker Declan Moore joins from the Melbourne Rebels, while the province have also promoted nine of their academy to senior contracts for the new season. Thomas Ahern, Josh Wycherley, Ben Healy, Jack Crowley, Jake Flannery, James French, Jack Daly, John Hodnett and Sean French step up to the senior ranks.

Players out: Munster have lost a lot of experience this off season, with the retirements of CJ Stander, Billy Holland and Tommy O'Donnell. JJ Hanrahan (Clermont) and James Cronin (Biarritz) have both embarked on new adventures in France, scrum-half Nick McCarthy has rejoined his home side Leinster, while hooker Rhys Marshall has returned to New Zealand following five years in Ireland.


Champions Cup opponents: Wasps, Castres Olympique