Friday 18 August 2017

Brendan Fanning: Munster and Leinster defy doomsayers but continued success hinges on keeping talent at home

 

John Ryan for Munster and Garry Ringrose for Leinster are amongst the young talent breaking through.
John Ryan for Munster and Garry Ringrose for Leinster are amongst the young talent breaking through.
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Matt O'Connor and Declan Kidney wouldn't be two men you'd have as fellow travellers on the same train of thought, but that's how it felt last week as the dust settled on another momentous weekend in Ireland's love affair with Europe.

As a rugby coach, Kidney ploughed his furrow primarily along the middle ground. In his early days with Munster, when they were in places like Toulouse, under the cosh and with Mick Galwey imploring his team-mates to keep the score below 50 points, Kidney was always able to see the upside.

And when they turned the corner in France and became a Heineken Cup powerhouse, the coach was quick to point out that every bit of silver lining was right next door to a cloud. So let's not lose the run of ourselves.

If you were in the business of harvesting interesting quotes then it wasn't exactly a vintage crop, but from Kidney's perspective it made absolute sense: the bad days are rarely quite as bad as they seem; and the good ones don't mean the sun is always going to shine.

And Matt O'Connor? He will be back with Leicester Tigers soon enough, less than two seasons since he was ushered out of the Leinster picture, but it feels longer because the Australian is associated with hard times in this part of the world. That reflected more about the crazy expectation that attended the scene than what actually unfolded in his two seasons, which returned a Guinness Pro12 title along with two qualifications for the knock-out stages of Europe.

"You can't win every year," he said, on his way out the door. "That's the reality of it. I think the Leinster fans - fantastic as they've been - need to have more clarity in terms of what's acceptable and what's realistic."

The problem for O'Connor was that, in the few years before he arrived in Dublin, Leinster had been winning virtually every year: 2009 was their breakthrough season in the Heineken Cup; in 2010 they topped the Magners League table and were beaten finalists, while in Europe they lost an away semi-final to Toulouse; they were back-to-back winners of the Heineken in 2011 and 2012, losing and winning Magners finals respectively in those years; and in 2013 they won the Challenge Cup and Rabo titles.

Then Joe Schmidt folded his tent and took a short walk over to the IRFU office. He left behind a squad that was about to lose Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa, with Brian O'Driscoll to follow a year later. O'Connor had his hands full - just not full of quality players.

Leo Cullen inherited the gig, leading an inexperienced group, and quickly found himself in trouble. By the end of his first season he would have looked longingly at O'Connor's stats. Leinster failed to get out of their Champions Cup pool. Unlike 2013, when there was the parachute that landed softly in the Challenge Cup - and ended successfully on a sunny final day with a trophy - there was just a blank space.

The gap was mirrored in Munster. They too had gone down the road of replacing a high-profile Antipodean with an inexperienced local man, in their case Anthony Foley taking over from Rob Penney. And that hadn't worked either.

By the time Foley got the job the stars he had played with were virtually all otherwise engaged. Like Cullen he was battling with the realities of a competition that was harder to get into: Munster only made sure of Champions Cup involvement this season with a win in the last game of the 2015/'16 Pro12 campaign. And once in it the pools were harder to get out of, while the cash to compete was hauled in articulated trucks moving only between England and France. The aggregate for Ireland was grim.

Your position on this was either that the game was up, or that it was one we would be able to compete in only occasionally. Nowhere in any corner of this land was there a man, woman or child predicting that in the spring of 2017 Munster and Leinster would be back in the semi-finals of the Champions Cup.

The twists and turns that have brought us to this point have been unique. Munster's journey has been traumatic; Leinster's less so. Both have swung on key changes in coaching personnel, supported by a cast of fresh young faces that have turned into Broadway hits shows that were on the brink of closing early.

For Munster the Rassie Erasmus effect - swept along initially on the wave of emotion around the sudden death of Foley - has been a phenomenon. So it was unsettling to see him open the door last week on an early return to South Africa. His attempts at closing it have been unconvincing. A South African source, who is close to the Munster coach, last week rubbished the speculation on the basis that despite changes in SARU, the last thing Erasmus wanted was to return to an environment where teams are not picked on merit. "It's a crock of sh*t," he said. "Rassie's very happy in a job where there's no meddling."

If Erasmus wanted to make that point himself, however, he could have. But didn't.

Meantime, the soap opera that has surrounded the contract extensions of the Leinster coaching staff has been comical. This has nothing to do with the value placed on Stuart Lancaster - who has been transformative - or his assistants, rather what the IRFU need from Leinster on the job specs of those involved before they sign off on it all. What on earth could be taking Leinster so long?

Lancaster is nailed on till 2019, after which it's understood his plan is to explore options in the Southern Hemisphere. In the meantime, the arrangement of the furniture around him is evidently proving problematic.

Neither Mick Dawson in Leinster not Garrett Fitzgerald in Munster were available to discuss either coaching issue last week. If they had been, they might have taken the opportunity to have a whinge about the IRFU policy of reducing central contracts, ie those where the union pick up the tab for the players. If you're doing the sums in any of the provinces then any load carried by head office is a relief.

So when Donnacha Ryan was not offered a central contract it meant Munster had to do some of the heavy lifting. This may not have a huge financial implication for the player but it does for the province, and when you get shifted from central to provincial there is a blow to the ego as well. Add it up and Ryan was a model to be packed off to France, because the bogey men with the piles of loot have hardly gone away.

They know, however, they'll have a job on their hands luring likely Test players away from this country as long as the following obtains: Ireland are competitive at international and club level; and the players are not flogged out onto the field when in need of rest.

If those two criteria are satisfied then it becomes a harder sell for English or French clubs. Currently the IRFU are winning the war on hanging on to the younger crew, partly because of the system they have set up, and partly because of the experience of the high-profile players who have left.

Johnny Sexton, top of the marquee names, had two very well paid years in Paris, but looked thoroughly unhappy with the experience. Ian Madigan is nearing the end of his first season in Bordeaux, and while the wedge for that move is very tasty, his spin over here a couple of months ago, hawking himself to whatever name was put to him, was embarrassing.

Then there is Marty Moore. You really wanted him to be starting against Leinster last weekend instead of coming off the bench. The reality is that while the environment may be good, and the coaching is what he was after, still Moore isn't as gainfully employed as he would have wished. And unless that great defender of the free world launches a few Tomahawks into the homes of tighthead props on this island, then Marty won't be wearing green until be comes home.

Sexton was the exception to that 'stay here or lose out' rule, and the union are adamant there won't be any others. With the rapid transition of young talent through the Irish system they can afford to play hardball with the kids, but their policy of parsimony on central contracts weakens what is a strong hand. Whatever way you look at it, Ryan is a loss.

If Declan Kidney was commenting on this wondrous turnaround you imagine he'd be borrowing Bertie Ahern's election slogan from 2002: "A lot done, more to do." And Matt O'Connor might even agree.

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