Tuesday 25 July 2017

It's time for this team to stand up and fight

Foley's men have improved since the day I called them 'borderline disgraceful' but we need to see quality as well as passion today

Munster coach Anthony Foley will be hoping for a strong end to his team's season (SPORTSFILE)
Munster coach Anthony Foley will be hoping for a strong end to his team's season (SPORTSFILE)

Alan Quinlan

It wasn't planned. It wasn't a script. It wasn't rehearsed. It just came out. For nearly two months the frustration had built up. Connacht at home. Next was Newport away, before Leicester home and away. Then Leinster.

Five straight defeats, although things got better in Belfast where a gutsy win reminded me of the old Munster. But this . . . this was "embarrassing, humiliating".

Four months on, I stand by what I said that afternoon on Sky after Munster's Champions Cup defeat to Stade Francais.

"Munster have no divine right to win these games," I began. "It was very distressing to watch. Borderline disgraceful."

Plenty believe the only thing that was disgraceful was my comment, that I had a duty, as a former Munster player, to show solidarity to former colleagues. Others agreed with me, and were just as angry by the sight of some players lacking desire.

And that is the thing about playing for this province. You don't finish with the place when you retire. You are still a fan. You want the team to do well. But they were losing badly to a team who had only 14 men. Was I wrong to question their passion?

And surely, after two successive years where they have failed to qualify for the Champions Cup quarter-finals, I was right to suggest it was time they looked at the structure from top to bottom? In rugby, in business, in life, you need a plan. And if it is not working, then you need to find new ways of breaking down the barriers that are there.

So I don't regret what I said. I could have done without the attention, though. I don't want that s**t.

Yet there is an old saying that once you point your finger, you can expect four fingers to be pointed back at you. That is the price you pay for being a pundit, whereas the price you pay for being a coach is to be criticised. And it is always heightened when that criticism comes from ex-players, all the more so when it's from a friend.

We spoke after that, Anthony Foley and I, because we have respect for each other. I want him to do well, believe he is a really good coach, an honest guy, and a brave man to put himself in a position where there is pressure.

No-one would have been more disappointed than Anthony with what happened in Paris. But he is resilient. Tough. As are Jerry Flannery and Mick O'Driscoll, his coaching colleagues. They weren't happy with me. But I had a job to do.

Their job, however, is altogether tougher because they don't have the advantages that our generation of players had. When we broke through, expectations were low. No-one anticipated that we'd reach European finals.

And when we did it in 2000, it was expected that we'd fall away and be one-season wonders, because that was just the way it was in Irish rugby back then.

So every time we broke through a barrier, people applauded us, and we fed off their passion. We were hungry, determined, packed with leaders and lucky to be around at a time when the money men in France and England didn't have such deep pockets.

This group of players haven't had that good fortune. Expectation levels remain high but the landscape has changed. Munster's balance sheet is dwarfed by almost everyone's at the top end of the Top 14 and Aviva Premiership.

So in this context, you need a bit of luck along the way. But you also need players busting a gut to stop tries. And I just didn't see that in Paris.

Which was why I wanted some change, the dynamic of change, the drive to get better. Had I been a player inside that dressing-room listening to someone say that about me, I can imagine how I would have reacted. "Who the f**k is he?" I would have said. There would have been anger because all humans want to hear positive stuff.

Yet opinions are based on facts. After losing that game to Stade, Munster had six defeats from seven games. Not good.

Since then, things have improved. The desire is visible again, which has to be a given when you play for Munster, and while it has been pleasing to see these guys do that, the fact remains that since beating Stade at home, a week after the Paris defeat, Munster's only victories have been against Treviso, Zebre and the Dragons, the bottom three in the League.

Missing out on the play-offs is a probability, missing out on next season's Champions Cup a possibility. And if that happens, I'm worried about the future.


We were preparing for the World Cup in 2007 and on our way from the team hotel to our training pitch in Wicklow when the word broke. As I walked down the team bus, another Munster player stopped me. "Have you heard?" I hadn't. "Doug Howlett has signed for us."

Now this was a big deal. Howlett was the All-Blacks' all-time leading try scorer, still at the peak of his powers and had offers from right across Europe. But he chose us. I asked him why a year or so later.

"It's the culture and history of the place," he said. "I knew we could win in Europe. I knew there was a winning culture here. The structures and motivation were in place to get success. I wanted to be a part of that."

He'd watched our games for years and was taken in by the spirit and passion, by the energy we had to push ourselves, by our fitness levels, by our ambition, our togetherness. "I thought I could add to it," Doug said. "I just wanted to win."

Fast forward to today. Is the next Doug Howlett sitting in New Zealand thinking the same thing? You'd hope he is. You'd hope he can look beyond the results this season and see that there is a lot of good stuff happening. You'd hope he is able to see the passion - which went missing in Paris - and is able to identify with the type of province we are.

But the fear is that if we miss out on Champions Cup qualification that he would look elsewhere.

And that is why today's game in Connacht is almost as important as those barnstorming days and nights against Saracens, Northampton, Stade, Toulouse, Wasps, Gloucester, Biarritz, Leicester and Leinster from all those years ago.

Because there is some player, somewhere in the world, who could have a choice to make.

This team have the chance to make their sales pitch today, a day when they have to stand up and fight.

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