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How Munster went from struggling to secure European rugby to a URC Final | WEDNESDAY NIGHT RUGBY

Munster have turned their season around, from being unlikely to have a top eight URC finish to taking part in the grand final.

Munster have turned their season around, from being unlikely to have a top eight URC finish to taking part in the grand final, and Graham Rowntree and his coaching staff deserve all the credit.

This was the sentiment shared by former Munster front rowers Fiona Hayes and Keith Wood.

Munster's start to their first season under Graham Rowntree could hardly have gone worse. With three wins from their opening eight matches, all at home, the traveling Munster side lost to the likes of Cardiff, Dragons, Leinster and Connacht on the road, and narrowly lost to Ulster at home.

The first half of the season was so poor that many began to question whether Munster would even qualify for the Champions Cup, let alone challenge for any sort of silverware this season.

However, throughout the struggling beginnings under a largely new coaching staff and system, the call was always for patience.

Now, as the men in red sit in their accommodation in Cape Town, ready to tackle the storm that awaits them in South Africa's Mother City, they have well and truly turned their season around, and could become the first non-South African team to lift the URC trophy.

How Munster turned their season around

Speaking on Wednesday Night Rugby, former Munster and Ireland prop Fiona Hayes recalled the start to their season, and the rhetoric coming out of the coaching staff, including Rowntree, Denis Leamy and Mike Prendergast.

"At the start of the season, the coaching staff asked for patience," Hayes said. "They were going to be implementing different systems, especially the first few games.

"No one wants to watch knock ons, it's not the prettiest of rugby, especially when you're inside the 22m attacking. You expect the players to be more clinical.

"Sometimes you blame the skillset of the players when in fact they're just learning  how to implement those systems that have been freshly put on them.

"The more they go about that throughout the season, the confidence is huge in them. The more they go about that, the more confident they are in where they are meant to be and the shape they are meant to have."

Growing through confidence

Hayes feels that the collective growth within Munster is down in no small part to individual confidence, and the form of players coming through throughout the season.

"You can't take away individual form as well," Hayes said. "Calvin Nash is someone who has really stepped up to the plate and put his hand up.

"John Hodnett has had some monster performances. I just thought [Jack] Crowley has really settled the ship. Unfortunately, [Ben] Healy is going away, but in the knockout rugby games, their partnership and the how they are interlinking... is a confidence thing.

"When we thought they weren't even going to be qualifying for Champions Cup rugby, and now to be in a final."

"Their attack and their launch plays off set piece is really good as well," Hayes added. "That's what's exciting to watch. The players offloading and they're backing themselves with those offloads. I think it's a confidence that has been built throughout the season.

"At the start you might think it will never happen, but it goes to show you that if you can back a player, system, or coaching staff and give them that time, it will eventually grow."

Expect a final's performance

In spite of their difficult start to the season, Rowntree's side are the only team in the URC that the Stormers have not beaten.

Similarly, Munster are the only team to have beaten the Stormers in Cape Town since the Lions did it in December 2021.

Former Munster and Ireland hooker Keith Wood, who joined Hayes on Wednesday Night Rugby did not get carried away with the favourable statistics.

He believes the final will be won on a performance, and that Munster's change this season has given them the confidence and fitness to unleash that performance one more time.

"When I go and look at the expectations that you have for the weekend, I would do what we have for the last three or four years," Wood said.

"When you get to the semi-final or a final, you're looking for a performance, you're looking for players to leave it on the field. I thought that's what happened against Leinster a couple of weeks ago, and we hadn't seen that variance in the style that they played in the previous three or four years.

"If they go back into their shell, for me that's a big risk. The difference in the team, for me, that stacks out over anything else is their fitness.

"They look markedly fitter to play a different style of game, and I think that was behind some of the early losses. I think that work that happened in the pre-season had a bit of a lag afterwards.

"It put them under a huge amount of pressure. It stands them in great stead that they've come through that pressure."

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