Bill Clinton's campaign strategist James Carville famously summed up the key issue for every US Presidential campaign as being all about the economy. As the US gears up for another presidential election Munster's opening stanza in the RaboDirect PRO12 can similarly be distilled down to a single element. For all the initial progress new coaching team Rob Penney and Simon Mannix can point to, success this season for Munster in the RaboDirect PRO12 is going to depend upon how quickly its young forwards develop.
At the start of the season the big worry for Munster was its midfield and optimising the potency out wide. Downey, Laulala and Earls have shown enough to suggest that Munster's backline is less of a headache for the coaching team than the forward play. Given the youthful complexion of Munster's forwards these days and the loss of such stalwarts as O'Driscoll, Hayes, Leamy, Flannery and Wallace, this is hardly surprising.
After encouraging opening forays against Edinburgh (18-23) and Treviso (19-6) Munster has lost three of its last four PRO12 fixtures to Ulster (20-19), Ospreys (30-15) and Leinster (30-21). This series of losses was leavened only by the sparkling rout of Newport (33-13). Each defeat can be explained in a number of ways - a young developing side, difficult away fixtures and Internationals returning piecemeal to the squad - but in each defeat Munster struggled upfront; without a pack that can maintain parity, no matter how marked the improvement in back play, it is hard to win games.
At least the visits to Ravenhill, Swansea and Dublin are out of the way. Each of these trips are great fun for the supporter, regardless of the result, but to come away from these fixtures with just one bonus point is disappointing.
Lying fifth in the table, three points off a Play-Off place is probably a fair reflection of where Munster stand in the RaboDirect PRO12 at moment; the table doesn't lie. Before a ball was kicked in anger, Head Coach Penney was keen to point out that the season was a long one and that development of the squad would need time. To be in touch with the Play-Off places at the first break in the programme is, therefore, a fair effort.
Individual highlights of the first six games include Luke O'Dea's try against Edinburgh, a beautiful line run off James Downey's shoulder (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEsh1Rxxinc), Keith Earls' try against Ulster (http://www.rabodirectpro12.com/matchdaytv/) and Simon Zebo's performance against Dragons.
With work to do, particularly amongst the pack, the current squad has shown enough to hearten the Red Army. It is encouraging to see the emergence of Luke O'Dea on the wing, Dave Kilcoyne at loosehead and Dave O'Callaghan in the backrow as players of great potential, delivering stand out performances. Ally them to Billy Holland's consistency in the second row and Ian Keatley's early adoption of the less structured Penney plan and things bode well for the Zebre match, before the Autumn International break.
• Biggest surprise so far? Luke O'Dea, he's pushing Howlett and Zebo for a starting spot on the wing, fantastic.
• Most valuable player so far this season? James Downey - guaranteed go forward with an offloading game that Munster's back three is thriving off
• Overall season prediction for your side? Definitely a Play-Off spot. If we make the Final, I'd be delighted but not expecting any more at the moment.
• Other predictions? (Top-points or try scorers or anything else you'd like to venture!) Given a fair run of games Ian Keatley could be the top points scorer this season
• Who's going to win the RaboDirect PRO12? Ospreys