Anthony Foley to consider Munster position after capitulation in Paris
These are dark days for Munster Rugby and head coach Anthony Foley was not in self-preservation mode as he sifted through the rubble of a humiliating second successive Champions Cup pool exit on Saturday night.
The former No 8 says he will think long and hard about whether he is the right man to lead the province beyond the end of this season, accepting that his reputation and long-service will have little bearing on whether he remains in situ next season.
Foley has been offered a one-year extension to his current deal which expires at the end of this season, but he has yet to sign it amid a run of six defeats in seven games that has led to the two-time champions going out of Europe with two pool games remaining despite earning a favourable draw through last season's league performance.
Saturday's loss to a Stade Francais team down to 14 men for the entire second half felt like a new low for what was once the proudest of Irish provinces. Only a dubious Conor Murray consolation try prevented them entering the record books as the first Munster team whitewashed in 21 years of European rugby.
Throughout all of that time they have rarely felt so far away from the top tier of elite clubs. Eight years have passed since they collected their second title, and it looks like they'll be waiting a long time for a third.
As captain of the 2006 winning team, Foley helped create the Munster monster, but he knows that loyalty has no place in elite sport. As a result, he is ready to step aside if he feels he is the problem.
"It's about results," he said. "I have said it before and I am clear on it, if I don't feel I can get results there is no point in being here.
"I have been brought up through here. I have been here a long time, come through the schools and everything. It's about winning. It's not about people. It's about getting results.
"It doesn't matter, sport has no memory, no conscience. It doesn't care. You have got to be able to do a job and make sure you get results."
Munster could do with others in the organisation following the coach's lead and taking a long, hard look at themselves in the dark months to come.
The stark reality is that the province is in the European doldrums and the best clubs are getting further and further away in the distance. Whether it's the empty seats at Thomond Park, the hit and miss recruitment or the lack of top-quality players coming through the Academy, there are problems at every level of the province.
Perhaps the biggest sign of decline is the sight of JJ Hanrahan in the green and black of Northampton Saints. Foley (pictured) insists that it was the Currow native's decision to turn down Munster's offer and leave, but it is impossible to watch Ian Keatley's regular struggles at out-half and not think that the head-coach backed the wrong horse in the out-half race.
Now, they face a battle to keep their best players. Conor Murray has signalled his intention to stay and try and win another trophy for his home province, but he must have wondered about going public before committing his future as he left the Stade Jean Bouin. Simon Zebo is another marquee player out of contract and he played like he had already made up his mind to get out of Dodge on Saturday, even if the latest noises are that he may be favourable to staying put.
There are valid excuses that can be offered for each individual failing, but taken together it is impossible to ignore the undeniable fact that, a decade on from their first European title, Munster's legacy has been squandered.
Munster lorded it over Europe for long enough not to expect any sympathy from their rivals and, in their last three European games, they have been given a chilling reminder of how far from the top table they are.
Leicester beat them home and away on an aggregate score of 48-25, while Stade beat them 27-7.
The Tigers are no longer the force of old, but last summer Richard Cockerill recruited the innovative former All Black Aaron Mauger to his backroom team to re-invent their style of play, while he signed up a couple of mid-ranking Kiwis in Brendon O'Connor and Mick Fitzgerald, who have added to their edge.
Stade, meanwhile, are Top 14 champions yet their defence hasn't gone to plan. Gonzalo Quesada conceded that Saturday's performance had been his side's best of the season, but for Foley it was a reminder of just how deep the French squads are right now. Without a host of international talent, the former Puma fielded three Academy players, but when one is of the calibre of former France U-20 star Sekou Makalu it makes life easier.
"They've a massive squad; all French teams in the competition, across the board, have massive squads they can go to," Foley said. "So it is a concern. This is a very busy season, you don't get your traditional break around November because it's a World Cup year. We're all in the same boat.
"We want to get out the back-end of these competitions but unfortunately we've got to score points to do that."
In contrast, Munster's squad is nowhere near good enough to compete at this level. The loss of Ronan O'Gara and Paul O'Connell from the young squad has left them overly reliant on a few key men and Peter O'Mahony's latest injury has been felt.
On Saturday, there were simply too many passengers in red. While Stade's replacements added to their side's impetus, Foley had very little in reserve to change things up. That he left two subs in the stand told its own story.
The big question for Munster chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald and IRFU performance director David Nucifora is whether another man could improve Munster's lot.
Foley has always been respected as having a serious rugby brain, served his time under Tony McGahan and Rob Penney and was due his chance when he took over before the start of last season. He puts in the hours, feels every loss and retains the respect of the dressing-room.
With assistant coach Brian Walsh and technical director Mick O'Driscoll expected to leave at the end of the season, perhaps the addition of a strong voice from overseas would add something to the equation.
Yet, for all that the head coach and his ticket get the blame it is inescapable that Munster's squad is far off the pace of its rivals. With the emphasis on development and ensuring as many Irish players as possible are playing first-team rugby for the benefit of the national team, the IRFU will be reticent to sanction any more overseas signings.
Mark Chisholm, who was disappointing again in Paris, has another year to run on his contract, as does the at-times excellent Francis Saili.
BJ Botha is expected to leave at the end of the season, but the problems that the Reds encountered at scrum time showed a player of a similar calibre is needed at tighthead. It is hard to see where that player will come from within the system.
Tyler Bleyendaal's injury problems have made for a nightmare for a club who, in an ideal world, would go out and spend big on a top-quality out-half. The problem is that the going rate for one of those is at least €400,000 and first you have the green light from Lansdowne Road.
So, the current squad will have to step up and deliver.
"The coaches give us everything we need, all the tools we need to perform and we don't give it back to them and that's disappointing," said captain CJ Stander, who must surely be exempt from criticism after taking the fight to Stade throughout, making 19 carries for 91 metres during another industrious 80 minutes.
"They're great coaches, but boys slipped tackles and missed tackles, don't keep the ball - all of the stuff they teach us, you know? We have all the plays, we know we can score tries and we don't and that's disappointing.
"Axel (Foley), Cossy (Ian Costello), Squeaks (Walsh), Micko (O'Driscoll), Fla' (Jerry Flannery). . . they're good coaches, they're passionate about the game and they drive us. It's disappointing to let them down, because I can see how much it hurts them. I know how much it hurts me as the captain."
Last season, Munster bounced back from a similarly gut-wrenching loss away to Saracens by reaching the Guinness Pro12 final, losing to Glasgow but securing a strong seeding for Europe.
Foley knows that something similar is needed. "We need something. We were having the same conversation this time last year, around trying to get out of our group, so we need to change something," he said.
"We've got to look at different things. Different opportunities will arise. Guys put their hand up well last week in Ravenhill, maybe in hindsight more of them should have started. But they're the decisions we make during the week and you make them on the quality you have and we need to revisit that again."
Those are the normal day-to-day decisions that Foley will make, yet he and everyone at Munster is aware of the bigger picture. This winter is proving long and arduous, and discontent among the brave and the faithful is getting louder.