Munster midfield crying out for revamp
Foley will have to find the right balance to keep Reds up to speed with Europe's new order
Published 29/04/2014 | 02:30
When Munster fell to their second Heineken Cup final defeat in 2002, the feeling amongst many supporters was that their glorious odyssey seemed destined for a yearly exercise in doomed delusions of grandeur.
Whether it was the mighty French challenge presented by Toulouse, or the powerful influences emanating from both Wasps and Leicester, who carved up the honours between 2001 and 2005, Munster's ambition to reside consistently at the top table seemed to be stillborn.
"The fear was that we'd never get the chance again," recalls Mick Galwey in the wake of the '02 defeat to Leicester.
Now, after a second semi-final defeat in successive seasons, a similar sense of gloom seemed to pervade so many of the obsequies that accompanied the journeys homewards of thousands of supporters.
As Paul O'Connell walked through the mixed zone on Sunday, dead-eyed and despondent, we were told that he was too disappointed to relay his thoughts on his side's error-strewn, albeit brave defiance.
Will he, we wondered, ever have a better chance to emulate his good friend Brian O'Driscoll and claim a third European crown? Perhaps not.
Publicly, at least, the players must retain their belief that the future holds the certain promise of great feats, rather than the prophecies of almost self-fulfilling kismet that project nothing but a barren landscape for Irish provinces in Europe.
"Munster have been proud in this European competition and that's two years in succession that we reached this stage but lost out in semis," offered Sean Dougall. "So we'll be raring to go again next season."
From bustling Marseille to dreary Meggetland – where Munster play Edinburgh this weekend – represents some retreat from the exalted stage of European competition.
Munster must now ensure their season doesn't wither away on the vine, as they seek to finish their domestic campaign with the flourish required to ensure they remain in the conversation for at least some silverware.
"It's tough but there is a Rabo there for us to win, that's going to be our next goal. We have Edinburgh and then Ulster and we'll try to kick on with that, to put in as good a performance as we can to make sure we'll be in contention," says Dave Kilcoyne.
As much as there must be change at Munster, much also needs to remain the same. They must sift through the qualities that have allowed them to punch above their weight, while removing the obstacles that have anchored them.
It is a point forcibly made by Toulon's chirpy Australian winger, Drew Mitchell, who admires much of what Munster have achieved, particularly from his vista within the star-studded, moneybags champions' lair.
"They are always a big test because they will fight for everything," he says. "They do it in the Heineken and they do it in their own domestic competition. What they do, they do very well."
From now on, they must simply do it better. The current Munster squad is not made up of better players than the ones who twice made them champions of Europe in the last decade. The task will get harder, not easier.
THREE THINGS MUNSTER MUST DO TO REMAIN EUROPEAN CONTENDERS
CENTRE OF ATTENTION
James Downey was bought to play a game that Munster never seemed committed to playing.
Casey Laulala was bought to play a game that Munster committed to playing but never came close to perfecting.
They have Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan as 10/12 options and Ivan Dinneen may prosper post-injury as a 13.
If the future involves Denis Hurley and Keith Earls as a combination, then a straw poll of Munster supporters would seem to be decidedly lukewarm on that option.
FIND THE RIGHT COACHING BALANCE
Munster made the best of a poorly choreographed exit for their incumbent coaching ticket and much hope is pinned upon the restoration of core values and intimate knowledge.
Anthony Foley faces pressure to be successful. He will embrace the challenge but he needs a backs coach of renown to arrest the startling decline in this facet of play.
If the grapevine mirrors truth, Munster have been turned down by more folk than there have been suitors queueing up to send in their cvs to the Munster Branch.
The club cannot mess up this appointment – that their outgoing backs coach is headed for a life in France's third tier indicates the urgent need to nail down a quality coach.
BREAK THE BANK
Or, alternatively, rob one. With Downey and Laulala gone – even if Munster rarely squeezed any sustained value from the pair – replacements must be found. That's the easy part.
Munster want a world-class outside centre and that off-putting species – the "project player" – to play 10 or 12.
All the best with that. A World Cup year combined with the purchasing power of at least a dozen richer clubs renders the task a nigh on impossible one; the IRFU are a sympathetic ear but will that extend to their wallets?
Munster have their own financial challenges and they are a long way from making the kind of money required to shell out big bucks on a star signing a la Christian Cullen.
Tempting Lifeimi Mafi back may be their best bet but would going back be the future?
Perhaps JP McManus could be persuaded upon to extend the spirit of his "Sporting Limerick" enterprises by tossing the odd million euro into the charity bucket?
Munster's tradition is founded on defiance.
James Coughlan, uncapped and demeaned as "only" an AIL club player, typified that spirit on Sunday; with his Sepp Maier-like charge-down of World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson's dropped goal attempt.
In that moment, they were as one. But Munster didn't compile enough of them to prevail.
More than a decade ago, the future looked almost as bleak. History recorded a different outcome; for Munster, at least, if not for folkloric figures such as Galwey.
That is why O'Connell cut such a forlorn figure. Munster may yet win this great prize – whatever it is called – again; sadly, O'Connell, just like Ronan O'Gara, may not.
Munster now occupy a European order where they cannot afford to abandon their core values; money cannot buy those principles.
But the grim reality is that the price on everything else will continue to accelerate upwards. Economics always trumps history, even if the "béal bocht" from some within Irish rugby sticks in the craw somewhat.
Because of this, proud defiance will start to matter less and less.