Thursday 25 December 2014

Francis: Eddie could have steadied an increasingly rocky ship

Munster missed a trick by not bringing O'Sullivan on board, writes Neil Francis

Published 18/05/2014 | 17:00

Would Munster miss Paul O'Connell more than Leinster will miss Brian O'Driscoll?

Garett Fitzgerald, the Munster CEO, after Munster's exit in Scotstoun last Friday night heralded another trophy-less season, rang through to his secretary.

"Call my broker" he said. "Stock or pawn?" she replied.

Munster's situation is perilous. Yes it is true they have reached the semi-final of the Heineken Cup in the last two seasons but most down south would not view that as success. The bar is set high – losing semi-finals just isn't where Munster want to be.

The truth is their arrival into the semi-final was on the back of five or six quality international players. From this season onwards the quality in Munster's squad diminishes at a faster rate than it did last season. Their ability to compete depends solely on doing it from memory and the knowledge that the fortress down in Thomond, no matter what sort of a team they put out, is always a conspicuously difficult hurdle to overcome in European competition.

Fitzgerald's first investment came just after Christmas. Rob Penney was effectively dismissed at that juncture. Whenever a franchise only commits to a one-year extension it means they either have no confidence in the coach or they have entered into a holding pattern while they go in search of somebody new.

Anthony Foley, already in situ, does not arrive into a job where the team is at a low ebb. Perennial contenders, Munster won 16 out of 22 games in the Rabo, which is respectable. They thumped an admittedly out-of-sorts Toulouse in Thomond Park and all they were missing in Toulon was their traditional measured calm and the ability to apply pressure as only they know how. It hasn't been a bad season but I do suspect that it will get worse next season despite the introduction of Foley, who I think will be a positive force for the province.

One can never say for certain whether Eddie O'Sullivan was in the mix to be the new Munster backs' coach. We can only speculate on what sort of an impact he might have had. Two years in Biarritz: beautiful town, a proud Basque team and plenty of dough from Blanco. You suspect O'Sullivan will get them straight back up and with his second year at the very least keep them there and maybe go a bit further.

One of O'Sullivan's principal qualities is pragmatism. He is a realist and he would call a halt to what Munster have been trying to achieve over the last two seasons because it simply isn't working. He would also have made a better fist of the players he had and fashioned them into a far more effective backline. The midfield partnership of James Downey and Casey Laulala seemed like the ideal pairing. A bosher and a stepper, but as the season went on nobody knew which was which. Neither of them could pass – particularly off the left hand. Munster's back line invariably got their lines wrong when they got quick ball, sometimes lying too deep and getting caught behind by their laboured passing, sometimes playing too flat when there were shooters in the opposition line.

Ian Keatley is a very good passer but is he strong enough to run a back line? I suspect not. He has learned to kick with more assurance and his execution has been quite good and he will be retained for next year but what will he have outside him? With O'Sullivan gone, what options do Munster have for a backs' coach? Simon Mannix has had a very poor two-year period with the club. He was a talented player and had a reasonable tenure in Racing but whatever about Penney's performance, Munster weren't having Mannix back under any circumstances. Foley will regret that Munster didn't move quicker to get O'Sullivan because the need to get somebody competent to marshal Munster's outside players is pressing.

The match in Scotstoun on Friday was a display of steely resolve and determination. It was amazing how many players were actually picked up and dumped back two, three and four metres and without one concession of a tip tackle. There was real malice in those tackles but it was underpinned with great discipline from both sides. Glasgow always looked the better side but Munster's innate ability at the breakdown kept them in it and as the game wore on the men in red got much better at tight and more ruthless at defence.

When Josh Strauss (injury) and Chris Cussiter (tactical substitution) were replaced by Leone Nakarawa and Niko Matawalu, I thought Munster would have a distinct advantage in the 8 and 9 slots. Conor Murray, despite some desperately poor passes which went to ground in the first half, managed to control his pack and the way they built phases pretty well.

But the two Fijian subs transformed the game for Glasgow. Their footballing ingenue and dashing athleticism really told and despite having to send on Sean Lamonte as an openside they finished the game far stronger, knocking on Munster's door in the last minute after Tommy Seymour intercepted.

The period of play in the last six or seven minutes demonstrated the difference between the Munster of now and the Munster of then.

This match was played for the most part in the middle of the pitch and it must have been disconcerting for most of the watching Munster fans to see their team trying to build phases from that far out having neither notion, wit, nor any kind of

depth of knowledge to actually play their way through a pretty good defensive system. Despite getting back to within one point with 10 minutes to go, Munster weren't the masters of their own destiny and any thoughts of trying to bag a win were lost in this slavish attempt to try and throw the ball around.

They say pressure is for tyres and bra straps but Munster really should have applied it a little bit more. On the rare instances when Keatley got his kicking game going and Murray's box-kicking was on song, they managed to pin Glasgow in and score two of their tries and pick up a few penalties.

What they were attempting to do in the last few minutes didn't make sense and it is one of the things Foley will have to address.

Rob Penney heads off to Japan a decent man and if truth be told a decent coach. The Kiwi was certainly a far better proposition than Tony McGahan ever was and Munster might surprise themselves by picking a homegrown coach. The big ask now is to get a quality backs' coach who would have a symbiotic relationship with what is left of Munster's back line.

The big problem for Munster is that their academy is nowhere near as efficient as Leinster's and Ulster's and their ability to generate homegrown players, give them time and their head, is distinctly lacking.

The question that everybody is unable to answer is: Would Munster miss Paul O'Connell more than Leinster will miss Brian O'Driscoll?

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