Tuesday 27 September 2016

Alan Quinlan: Munster were the envy of Europe... now we're not even in it

Former kingpins need to call on the experience of Kidney to help rebuild morale and team’s structure

Alan Quinlan

Published 11/01/2016 | 02:30

Munster’s Francis Saili is tackled by Stade Francais’ Sekou Macalou, left, and Julien Arias during Saturday’s Champions Cup clash in Paris. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
Munster’s Francis Saili is tackled by Stade Francais’ Sekou Macalou, left, and Julien Arias during Saturday’s Champions Cup clash in Paris. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
Declan Kidney. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

Embarrassing. Humiliating. Bordering on disgraceful.

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Strong words and I didn't like using any of them. Yet when Alex Payne, the Sky Sports presenter, asked me to sum up how I felt on Saturday night after watching one of the worst Munster displays of my lifetime, I spoke from the heart.

There was a way out. I could have trotted out the usual old cliches, insincerely suggesting the team will be disappointed with their display, that they'll be hurting.

I gave my whole life to that jersey and I'm not saying that those players, or anyone in the Munster set-up, owes me. Nor am I looking for attention.

What I am looking for is change, for someone to stand up and say: "Quinlan, you're wrong. We are on the right path. This is what we are doing to make things better."

But if I am wrong then stand in front of me and tell me how. Please.

Because all I want is for Munster to get better. I'm not looking for a job out of this. I have nothing to gain by going on the attack. Anthony Foley, remember, is a friend of mine. A great guy and a coach I hold in high regard. I'm not getting away from the fact he is accountable and has to shoulder his share of responsibility, either.

Recruitment

Yet I strongly believe coaching isn't the key issue here. It goes beyond that. The whole structure of the club has to be looked at. The recruitment policy has to be addressed. The work at academy level also needs to be improved because it has not been productive enough.

Not so long ago, we were the pace-setters not just in Ireland but across Europe. We were winning two Heineken Cups in three years. Our jersey was the second biggest seller in world rugby, second only to the All-Blacks shirt. Sold-out signs were regularly posted at Thomond Park. We were standard-setters off, as well as on, the park.

And now? Now the terraces are half-empty. Never mind being the envy of Europe, after Saturday's defeat we aren't even in Europe.

I know there are mitigating factors behind this, too, that the sporting landscape has shifted since I played, that French, and English, clubs have much deeper pockets than they used to have then, and than we have now.

Plus, the structure of the Champions Cup is not as favourable to Ireland's provinces in the way the Heineken Cup was. Even non-sporting issues, like the recession, have deeply hurt the club because it isn't as easy for fans to fork out for tickets like they once could.

No one is blind to these issues. Nor is anyone saying Munster have a divine right to win the Champions Cup year after year. But what people - including me - are saying is that we should be doing a lot better.

We have a right, as fans, to expect more than what we saw on Saturday, when, against a Stade Francais team who were there for the taking, who played the entire second half with just 14 men, we got bullied, just like we have for much of the last seven weeks.

The set-piece was poor, the skill-set was nowhere near the standard required, the lines of running were inadequate, handling errors were too high, the overall execution was sub-par. Let us simplify this. The team is not good enough.

We were humiliated on Saturday and it wasn't a one-off. Remember Clermont and Saracens last year? Saturday saw another record set.

This side became the first Munster team to lose three European Cup games in a row, just a fortnight after equaling the worst losing streak in the province's history.

It hurts to write that - especially when deep down I believe Munster can be great again, providing the people in authority are honest and smart enough to firstly ask questions and secondly listen to the answers. If they do, then I believe we can have a crack at winning this competition at some point in the future.

Yet if this is to happen then there is no escaping the fact that some serious changes are needed.

Change number one would be to call Declan Kidney (pictured). Here is a man who has delivered two Heineken Cups and a Grand Slam - who cares about the province, whose great strength is building morale and a structure.

Right now, morale must be at an all-time low. Kidney could be involved in a structural review of the club.

Then I'd take a serious look at our recruitment and player development policies. Nearly half of our starting team on Saturday were from overseas or Leinster.

I've no problem with players coming from outside the province. My issue is that they are not good enough.

You think about the team selected on for the trip to Paris and you think about the Ireland team Joe Schmidt will send out against the Welsh next month. Who will be on it? Conor Murray? Probably.

So one player.

One - that's the same number of players we had on the Irish Under-20 team last year, although the record of nine victories from 11 underage interpros last year was a step in the right direction. Even so it's apparent that the club is still at a crossroads.

I don't believe heads have to roll for us to improve. What I'm looking for is a root and branch review of how we operate, for everyone in a senior position in the club to examine themselves, as well as their department, and come out and either say we are on the right track or else accept that things need to get better.

But the last thing I want is to sit down at the start of next season and repeat the words that I used last year and the year before - that no Irish province will stand a chance of winning the Champions Cup.

If we can't do anything about it then I will keep my mouth shut and move along.

Yet I'm convinced something can be done and until it is, I will not be taking a backward step from what I have said. If I'm wrong, tell me how.

Like every other Munster supporter out there, I want the answers.

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