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‘It’s A Special Group’ – Rowntree Savours Munster’s Title Win

‘It’s A Special Group’ – Rowntree Savours Munster’s Title Win

Graham Rowntree and Denis Leamy hold the United Rugby Championship trophy, alongside fellow coaches George Murray, Mike Prendergast and Andi Kyriacou ©INPHO/James Crombie

Graham Rowntree had the late Tom Tierney foremost in his thoughts when speaking in the immediate aftermath of Munster’s famous BKT United Rugby Championship final victory in Cape Town.

Tries from Diarmuid Barron, Calvin Nash and player-of-the-match John Hodnett propelled the Munstermen past the DHL Stormers, as the hard-fought 19-14 triumph garnered their first trophy in 12 years.

Since 2011 the province have had to bid a poignant farewell to a number of key figures both on and off the pitch, most notably ex-captain and head coach Anthony Foley and former Chief Executive Garrett Fitzgerald.

Just this past February, Munster marked another sad death with the sudden passing of Tierney, who had been working as an IRFU National Talent Coach at Munster’s High Performance Centre in his native Limerick since 2021.

Paying tribute to his former Leicester Tigers team-mate after the game, Rowntree said: “It’s not been an easy year. We lost a great one with Tom Tierney, a great coach. An emotional year. This is for the family of Tom. It’s for everyone.”

Emotions were understandably high in the Munster coaching box when referee Andrea Piardi blew the final whistle. The TV pictures showed Rowntree staying seated with his head in his hands, while his fellow coaches exchanged hugs.

“That’s elation for me, my head in my hands. It’s emotional. I’m not going to lie, I was emotional at the end there,” he admitted, with the province’s inspirational URC title win coming less than a year after Mike Prendergast, Andi Kyriacou and Denis Leamy joined the coaching set-up.

“A huge moment for the province, the players, the fans have been very patient waiting for this trophy. We’ve also lost some special people in that time.

Pete (O’Mahony) spoke wonderfully about it at the end there. This is for the people that we’ve lost over the years.

“It’s a special group. There’s some older players who have waited patiently over the years, Pete being one of those, to win a trophy. I’m immensely proud of this group.

“Delighted for the whole of the province, the people that are here now, the playing group, the families back home, the kids watching, the supporters in the province.”

While his charges needed to regain some lost form in order to finish fifth in the URC table, there is no doubt that Munster were the best team throughout the play-offs, claiming the scalps of Glasgow Warriors, table toppers Leinster and now the Stormers, last year’s winners.

The destination for the 2023 final may have been 14,000 kilometres away, but as ever, the Munster fans made their presence felt at a packed-out DHL Stadium and lifted Rowntree’s side both before and during this bruising five-try clash.

“The Red Army that followed us here, unbelievable. I mean we drove into the stadium and there’s a Red Army of flags waiting for us on the road outside. So I’m delighted for those people. We did it for them.

“The game itself, I’m proud of the lads. We’ve done it tough. Our sixth game away from home, to come and do this…the places we’ve gone and the performances we’ve put in, without being perfect. We’re still growing our game.

“But we always stick in the game, and we showed that at the end there against some adversity (going down to 14 men). I’m unbelievably proud for everyone that’s involved with this prestigious team that is Munster Rugby.”

Apart from a frustrating late yellow card on Saturday, Jack Crowley has really come to the fore for Munster at the business end of the season. From his decisive drop goal against Leinster to his try assist and goal-kicking in the Cape Town cauldron.

Crowley’s impressive form saw him start at out-half with Ben Healy, who is leaving the province for Edinburgh, having an impact role off the bench. Another of Munster’s departing players, centre Malakai Fekitoa, starred as a ball carrier against the defending champions.

Former All Black Fekitoa beat six defenders in an all-action performance on both sides of the ball. Munster’s 91% tackle success was another important factor in the outcome as they ground the usually high-scoring Stormers into submission.

As he acknowledged the efforts of 23-year-old starlet Crowley and the departing Healy and Fekitoa, Rowntree commented: “He’s got confidence and he’s tough as well, is Jack. We saw that with the drop goal in the semi-final.

“He’s a brave young man and he’s got a high ceiling. Good for the group. Not over the moon about his yellow card at the end there, but I’ll pick that up with him! No. he’s been great.

“We singled them (Fekitoa and Healy) out in the dressing room afterwards to thank them for their contribution. Malakai, particularly his form the last three months, has been exceptional.

“And Ben as well. He said to me, the day he told me he was leaving, ‘I want to win something with Munster before I go’. He’s done it and I’m immensely proud of him.”

Rowntree reckoned the men in red did not get the full reward for their assured first half display, particularly with tries from Gavin Coombes and Mike Haley both being disallowed during Evan Roos’ sin-bin period.

He also bemoaned a couple of promising mauls which were penalised for obstruction, but praised his squad’s ability to ‘stick in the game’ and ‘recover’ when the pressure was really on.

“I thought we were pretty good in the first half in terms of keeping the ball. Our phase attack, we were making them work, and in particular the tight five work a lot.

“I was disappointed we didn’t go in at half-time 19 points up, with Gavin Coombes’ try that was disallowed. It was a perfectly good try. I was disappointed with that.

“We knew we had to keep the ball against these, which is a challenge on a pitch like that. We had to deal with their power game, we did a lot of homework on them.

“The Stormers are a great team, led by a great coach (John Dobson). The current champions in their home stadium with 50,000 fans. It was going to take a big game from us, and it was a question of sticking in the game.

Things didn’t go all our own way, some big moments around the breakdown, some penalty decisions against us. Big momentum swings in the game.

“A couple of mauls where we were done for obstruction, we’ve got to show better pictures there. You’re doing well but you get hit back again. Then you’ve got to recover, and what we have learnt is the ability to recover, in pressure, away from home.

“I keep saying we’re battle-hardened. We’ve not been able to rotate the squad massively, the same guys have been rolling out, but it’s made us fit and match hardened.”

Given Munster have played twice in both Durban and Cape Town in the last two months, they are perfectly placed to weigh up what impact the leading South African teams have made across their first two seasons playing in the URC.

Having beaten South Africa ‘A’ in historic circumstances at Pairc Ui Chaoimh last November and now ended the 2022/23 campaign by collecting silverware in the Rainbow Nation, Rowntree has clearly relished these cross-hemisphere contests.

“I think the inclusion of the South African teams has been excellent for the competition. Look at the Stormers last year. It’s a challenge, everyone’s got to come down here for a couple of games,” he added.

“Fortunately for us, the last time we were down here we picked up a win against the Stormers and drew with the Sharks, which probably saved our season, particularly in terms of European qualification.

“I think the inclusion of the South African teams has really boosted the quality of the competition.”