MANY Munster players look at the end of last season as some of the toughest games in their careers.
Clinging for survival in the European Championship, the last games in the Pro12 season were do or die.
Home games to the Scarlets and Edinburgh were tense affairs, far from pretty rugby, dominated by a fear of losing.
No player donning the red jersey wanted to be the one to end the European legacy but Munster were struggling to fire.
Well, this season Munster have thankfully found their spark to ignite and sit top of the league.
Players dismissed comments praising a great season a few weeks ago saying that this only counts if there is silverware in the cupboard, such is the standard amongst this group.
Ulster narrowly missed out on the spot now occupied by the Ospreys. Just one point separated the sides after Ulster rallied to beat Leinster in Belfast in the last round.
On their last outing, the Ospreys, on home soil went 17 to 3 up and looked to be racing clear. Some beautiful flat attacking lines and support play accounted for their first score. Their second came from a Munster scrum they managed to disrupt and that was just the opening 13 minutes.
Ospreys half-backs Tom Habberfield, with experience with Welsh 7s, and Sam Davies an IRB Junior Player of the Year recipient, have pace and talent in abundance.
They pick out a flat pass perfectly sending their players through gaps, Munster will need to be alert to all threats.
The Welsh side could well have been three tries up at 20 minutes such was the momentum they created. However, their flat style of play ensued a forward pass.
Munster luckily clawed back two tries before the break, both well-rehearsed training ground moves.
The first was from a dummy-maul and peel in the line out then to Jack O’Donoghue on the charge.
The second was a wrap between forwards and backs to put Saili into space. Ospreys created more open play threats, a re-watching of this game will be a stark reminder of the task at hand.
This time last year Munster were floundering. Senior players like Murray and Zebo were slicing balls and missing touch. The pack were struggling to replace the injured BJ Botha, while Peter O’Mahony missed most of the year through injury. The one glimmer of hope seemed to be the emergence of Jonny Holland as Keately and Blyendaal were both going through tough times. Unfortunately for Holland is career was cruelly cut short with a recurring hamstring injury.
Cut to this season and Murray collects the Irish Player of the Year at the recent Rugby Players Ireland Awards ceremony. He’s hotly tipped to be the starting test Lion and Zebo exudes seniority on the pitch. John Ryan continues to impress game after game at tight head while Blyendaal finally put his long-standing injury woes behind him.
Senior players leading the charge and young talent racing through, a winning combination.
Awards are one thing but Munster want silverware. The Rugby Players Ireland Awrads offered more moments to celebrate. Other recipients on the night included Donnacha Ryan, the Tipperary man collected the “Moment of the Year Award” on behalf of the senior side for On Day in Chicago.
The game memorably started with the figure of eight standing strong facing the notorious Haka. Munster players lead the symbolic stance; it was the brainwave of scrum coach Greg Feek. The two interwoven circles were a poignant tribute, and also a wonderful acknowledgment of the tight family that is Irish rugby.
Former head of IRUPA Omar Hassanein attested to this close kit rugby community, he has worked with Scottish, Welsh and English rugby and recounts Ireland has the strongest sense of family. Ryan collected the award and one fears it may have been a farewell from the long-serving second row before he moves to pastures new.
No where is this family bond and community stronger than in Munster, players and staff dearly want to repay the fans loyalty and support. Fans are already in awe of the turnaround this year. Ospreys will push them close but any team would dread to travel to Thomond Park this year.