McGahan and Munster in dire need of a makeover
Published 18/01/2011 | 05:00
REINVENTION is a process that has produced 'phoenix from the ashes' results for individuals as diverse as John Travolta, Kylie Minogue and even the ghastly Noel Edmonds -- now it is the prerogative for Munster coach Tony McGahan.
The Australian inherited a team from Declan Kidney that had powered its way to two Heineken Cup triumphs -- glories he had contributed to significantly through his role as defensive coach -- and one imbued with confidence and self-belief about their way of doing things -- a tough ask.
There are parallels to be made with Brian Clough taking over the streetwise, trophy-winning Leeds side of the early 1970s from Don Revie. The difference is the Leeds players never bought into Clough's radical and confrontational style and drew constant comparisons with Revie, while McGahan had the support and respect of the Munster squad when he came in.
The initial approach was to adopt a more fluid, multi-phased game, which when it worked was breath-taking, but it never properly took hold as there was a tendency to revert to the tried and trusted when the pressure came on. The change of focus also coincided with a reduction in Munster's traditional forward strengths.
The end result, two and a half seasons into McGahan's Munster tenure, is a side that is neither fish nor fowl -- not powerful enough in the front five to outmuscle the top teams and play percentage rugby, and not innovative enough to blitz them with invention out wide.
Time for a rethink. Two weeks ago, I wrote that the fallout from Munster failing to emerge from their Heineken Cup pool for the first time in 13 seasons would be catastrophic and so it has proved. The knock-on effects are far-reaching and not merely relevant to on-field matters.
From travel operators accustomed to transporting thousands of Munster supporters around the continent up until the latter end of the season, to merchandising and ticket sales (how many will now attend next weekend's clash with London Irish?), the Munster operation is a sizeable and significant one, with a superb stadium that needs large crowds to sustain itself and a wonderful brand that has crossed county and provincial boundaries.
The whole thing was founded on success and exposure -- take that away and, the fickle nature of footfall in hard economic times could see the wheels could come off fairly rapidly.
The truth is, it was never really likely to happen. Toulon are a good side but we have become so accustomed to Munster pulling big games out of the fire when the pressure is on that it was hard to envisage anything other than another famous away-day victory last Sunday -- particularly with the return of the totemic Paul O'Connell to the second-row.
Certainly, the prospect of Munster being blown away all over the park was never envisaged but, now that it has happened, the shock effect needs to be used as a positive. Irish rugby needs a strong Munster to flourish, generating exposure for the game and producing quality players for the national team.
One defeat does not spell, as some would have it, complete disaster but it certainly merits a root-and-branch review to get things back up to speed as quickly as possible.
Rugby does not, thankfully, operate in the frenzied, cut-throat environment of Premier League soccer but when things go wrong, the buck always stops with the man in charge and McGahan's role is now under intense scrutiny.
His contract has another season to run and, in the tough working environment of a province bred on success, the Australian was always going to be judged on his European exploits -- even the achievement of bringing the province to two semi-finals will be diluted by this pool exit.
However, though he will be the recipient of a barrage of knee-jerk broadsides after Sunday, McGahan remains an excellent coach who has the support and respect of his players. He deserves to remain in charge but there needs to be revolution in approach and personnel elsewhere so that, in years to come, Toulon can be seen as a watershed for subsequent progress.
Laurie Fisher's role has to be questioned. Although intelligent and articulate with an impressive CV from his Super Rugby days, Fisher has never properly convinced as forwards coach and his time in charge of the pack has coincided with set-piece uncertainty when solidity at scrum and line-out should be the starting point.
By contrast, Anthony Foley's transition from long-serving player to fledgling coach has been impressive. Born and reared in Munster rugby, Foley's contribution over the course of more than a decade in the Munster jersey commands respect and his savvy as a player -- a knack for always being in the
right place at the right time -- has translated into a common-sense approach to coaching.
Making Foley full-time forwards coach would allow him to express himself properly and bring Munster forward play back to the high level it was at when he was packing down at No 8.
Niall O'Donovan is another name that should be considered, having overseen quality Munster and Ireland packs down through the years.
Paul McCarthy has responsibility for the scrum, which has become a crippling problem in the big games this season, but the issue is not the expertise of the scrum coach -- McCarthy knows his scrummaging -- it is the absence of a dependable tight-head.
Jason Holland's role as backs coach must also be examined. The Kiwi has a long investment in Munster rugby and was part of the late 1990s and early 2000s sides that propelled the province to the forefront of the European game. However, Munster's back play has stagnated and, even allowing for the poor quality of ball they had to work with against a rampant Toulon pack, the backline efforts on Sunday were not the first cousin of what Leinster have been producing under Joe Schmidt.
It is a time for radical action and a time to look within the province. Brian Walsh is an excellent backs coach with Cork Constitution and knows the Munster operation intimately, with particular emphasis on unearthing young talent.
Michael Bradley is another backs coach whose experience and expertise could be utilised fruitfully and he has the crucial combination of being Munster-imbued and available.
This record is so broken now that MacGyver would struggle to fix it but the issue needs constant restating -- without a tight-head prop to lock the scrum, your goose is cooked from the off.
There were issues with Dave Pearson's interpretation on Sunday but aside from the on-going refereeing problems at scrum time, Toulon's dominance early on set the tone for what was about to unfold. Laurent Emmanuelli was completely on top of John Hayes and, when his power earned an early penalty for Jonny Wilkinson, Toulon's chests visibly swelled, while Munster's heads drooped as memories of their Ospreys nightmare came back to haunt them.
It is hard to criticise Hayes after what he has done for Munster and Ireland but the inescapable fact is that, at 37, it is unrealistic to expect him to be able to mix it at this level, in the scrum and around the park.
Then there is the Tony Buckley consistency problem. At his best, Buckley is one of the top props in the world with a superb loose game and, as he showed against Argentina last November, the capacity to do a job at scrum time. The problem is, whenever Buckley takes to the park there is a fingers-crossed element to the exercise rather than the security that comes from a tight-head such as Mike Ross, who you know will lock the scrum every time.
Munster have plenty of good loose-heads -- Wian du Preez, Marcus Horan, Darragh Hurley, Dave Ryan (who can play tight-head but is a stronger loose-head) but they need a top-quality tight-head to prosper. Peter Borlase was brought in but has yet to convince and, no matter how big the backline name on Munster's shopping list, tight-head prop has to be the priority.
The Leinster and Ulster academies have been garnering all the plaudits but there is plenty of talent coming through in Munster and McGahan has dipped into that pool during his time in charge.
Last season's trip to Connacht and this season's to Ulster saw callow sides produce excellent performances against more experienced opponents.
The age profile of the front-liners has become an issue -- bodies have been subjected to relentless punishment for a sustained period of time and now there is the opportunity to give youth its head.
Ian Nagle, Peter O'Mahony, Ivan Dineen and Paddy Butler are just some of the names who look like they have the right stuff and now they should be afforded the opportunity to prove as much.
The key is that, from the senior team right down to the Munster Academy and underage sides, there has to be a clear path to follow, a system that works for all and becomes the new 'Munster way'.
The mental challenge will be monumental but the Challenge Cup and Magners League should now be pursued with determination and focus.
London Irish need to be put to the sword next weekend and the Challenge Cup -- while very much the ugly friend of romantic pursuits -- is a goal worth chasing and one that could not only lift Munster but also Irish rugby if success sends Connacht into the Heineken Cup.
Winning the Magners League would also be a considerable fillip after their Heineken Cup disappointment and provides the opportunity to give the younger set their heads and locate a style of play that can bring the province forward.
It is a tough time for Munster, and an unnerving one also as the pedestal they had become accustomed to has been whipped from under them. However, change can be a good thing and the foundations are in place.
Yes, reinvention is needed but it is not a case of reinventing the wheel.