Anthony Foley hoping €1m All Black Francis Saili can solve midfield issues
Published 07/04/2015 | 02:30
Signing Francis Saili is an important statement for Anthony Foley to make about where his beloved Munster are going.
The local hero's first season in charge has not gone to plan and the mood around Thomond Park has largely been doom and gloom all year.
Many of the problems have been of others' making. Recruitment suffered during the transition between Rob Penney's era and Foley taking over, while the rogue email that shamed squad members in front of their colleagues got things off on a bad foot.
Injury has deprived him of a number of important players all season, while last season's late-season collapse led to a hellish European Champions Cup pool and, ultimately, elimination at the hands of two teams who have gone on to reach the semi-finals.
To compound matters, gates at Thomond Park have been poor and JJ Hanrahan's decision to leave for Northampton spoke of a something not being quite right.
Even before the season started, there was an obvious problem in the centre after Casey Laulala left when Racing Metro made him an offer he couldn't refuse and James Downey was mysteriously released.
Neither were replaced properly. That Andrew Smith was a stop-gap was clear from the fact that the Brumbie was only handed a one-year deal to move across the world, while Tyler Bleyendaal's neck injury left a gap at inside-centre that has largely been filled by converted full-back Denis Hurley.
Foley was already on the lookout for a quality centre before Hanrahan's bombshell, but the Kerryman's decision to move on increased the need to show that Munster still need business.
Saili wasn't their top pick, but his fellow All Black Ben Smith wanted to remain at home, as did Wallaby Rob Horne.
When Conrad Smith announced his move to Pau to link up with former Munster backs coach Simon Mannix fans despaired, but Foley has been working on convincing Saili and, when the New Zealander was told by selectors he wasn't in their plans for the World Cup, he decided to take the plunge and earn €1m over the course of two seasons.
Munster have signed All Blacks before, but Saili represents a new breed of Kiwi making the move to Europe.
At 24, his best years are ahead of him and he has decided to jettison any hope of representing his country to earn the big bucks available in this part of the world.
Last week, Ulster shocked New Zealand by landing Charles Piutau, who is closer to selection for the World Cup but decided to take up the chance to earn €1.4m for a two-year stint in Ireland and, while Saili is not considered to be in the same bracket, he is still a loss to the world champions' strength in depth.
There is no shame in being behind Sonny Bill Williams and Ma'a Nonu in the pecking order and while Saili won't be lighting up this year's World Cup, he is the kind of player Munster will be hoping will put bums on seats next season.
Standing at 5ft 9ins and 15 and a half stone, he offers ballast to the inside-centre channel, as well as a rounded passing and kicking game and a new set of options for Conor Murray and Ian Keatley to choose from in the No 12 jersey, while he can also cover other areas in the backline.
Despite his age, he has plenty of big-game experience at the Blues where he has played 33 times in Super Rugby, plus 31 ITM Cup appearances for Auckland.
"I believe this is a fantastic opportunity for me and I am fortunate to move to a club held in such high regard, with values and traditions I can relate to from my time here in the Blues," he said in a statement issued by Munster yesterday.
"This experience will stand to me as a player and I believe I can continue to improve and grow within the Munster set-up.
"As difficult as it is to leave the Blues, I look forward to the exciting challenge ahead."
Foley hailed his new capture's physical attributes and skill-set, while privately he will be delighted that the province have backed up his words from January when he re-iterated that nothing would stand in their way of landing quality talent from abroad.
With the wealth of competing French clubs and the increased power of the English inflating the market, it's a difficult time for the Irish provinces to keep pace, but the events of the last week show they still have a role to play.
Foley's next focus is on signing a hooker to bolster his options, while on the field it's all about winning the Guinness Pro12 to earn top seeding and avoid the nightmare draw that so hindered his side this season.
Currently third on the table, there is an imperative to leapfrog Ulster into the top two and earn a home semi-final to give themselves an extra financial boost, having missed out on the European quarter-finals, to help pay for their new talent.