McGahan rolling with the punches
CHALLENGING times for Tony McGahan. Over the last year, the Munster coach has had to handle consistent, draining injury issues, the impositions of Ireland's player management scheme and the absence of a chunk of his front-liners on World Cup duty. All things considered, he's done very well.
The response to last season's European disappointment comprised an excellent Magners League triumph at the end of a turbulent season and solid progress this campaign, in spite of the aforementioned challenges.
Last weekend's defeat to the Ospreys stung (McGahan described the display as "awful") but Munster are still comfortably in the play-off positions of the Pro12 and go into this weekend's Heineken Cup assignment with two wins from two outings.
Ronan O'Gara was the central figure in those early pool contests, but it is McGahan's policy of giving youngsters their head that has shone forth in difficult circumstances for, as well as coping with the present, the Munster coach has been providing for the future.
Given the foundations McGahan has established, it would make sense that he stays to build upon them over the next few seasons, but those decisions will be held over until the new year.
The immediate task is taking his diminished squad to Llanelli for a daunting assignment against a bullish Scarlets outfit featuring a clutch of Wales' World Cup tyros and a convincing 100pc record from their first two Heineken Cup matches.
"It is a real challenge coaching in Ireland with all those things mentioned," agreed McGahan. "We have a small player base and injuries certainly haven't been kind to us over a period of time.
"We are in a solid position, not in a great position, but we just have to get on with it -- we cannot sit back and moan about what you don't have, you have to worry about what you do have.
"That is our biggest focus, because nothing else can help us except the 23 we take to Scarlets."
Doug Howlett will not be among them, having been ruled out for the rest of the season. While McGahan believes the All Black will make a successful recovery and has "no doubt" about Howlett's desire to play on with Munster, replacing his main strike weapon is a big ask and he believes the answer will have to come from within the existing squad.
"There is an option there to allow you bring a player into the squad, I think one front-row and one (other) player during the pool stages, but we are still counting on Mike Sherry and Felix Jones getting back.
"You are looking at those players existing in the squad to come back in and you are also looking at the availability of a player to bring in. You cannot bring in anyone who has already played Heineken rugby or Amlin Challenge this year, so Europe really tightens that group.
"You have all the Super 15 players starting back, Australia's top players are in four-to-six weeks' rest so they are untouchable and it has got to be a three-month contract, minimum. So if we can get through with what we have, that will be our first port of call."
Without Jones and Keith Earls (due to return next week) that could mean a first Heineken Cup start for Simon Zebo who, even allowing for the injury doubts surrounding George North and Jonathan Davies, would be up against an intimidating Scarlets three-quarter line.
"They are an excellent side," agreed McGahan. "They have brought in all of these youngsters over the last three years. They've built a strong squad and you have seen evidence with their input into the Wales squad and the way they played in rounds one and two that they are ready to make a charge at the quarter-finals.
"We are going there with a lot of respect and need to be on our game. Their forward play has picked up, their scrum has been stable and they have got an excellent maul.
"They also have (out-half) Rhys Priestland who is kicking exceptionally well and if you look at North, Davies, and (Scott) Williams, they have a really exciting backline attack that certainly doesn't have any fear."
Perversely, last season's Toulon trauma may be helping McGahan's men as that pool exit has lowered expectations and steeled determination for their European response this season.
Facing the Scarlets as underdogs is not a bad place for Munster to be mentally.
"This year we have a resolve but it helps having players like Paul O'Connell on the park -- that is a key point. At the back end of last season we went on a decent run and were competitive," he said.
"Injuries have hurt us, and you want to keep your best players, but it is just about attitude. Who is here right now -- that is our biggest focus."
Munster have been battling against the elements for the last year but, rather than worry about the past and what could happen in the future, McGahan has opted for the 'right now' approach -- which seems like a good way to go.