McGahan has hauled Munster from the abyss by instilling old values into new-look side
Published 30/12/2011 | 05:00
Perception isn't always everything, but it does affect judgment.
The 2010 festive season seemed to sum up Munster's drift from stasis into crisis.
Holding their Christmas party in Leinster's stag capital (Kilkenny) hardly helped the omens. Suffice to say, the party resembled 'EastEnders' more than Frank Spencer.
Already listing perilously on the cliff of a first Heineken Cup pool exit in over a decade, Munster were in turmoil.
One of their finest backs in recent years, Paul Warwick, was not offered the deal he wanted, so he announced that he would up sticks with his young family and decamp to Paris.
Paul O'Connell, whose absence had been so obvious during Munster's sluggish Heineken Cup opening, had no sooner returned from his troublesome year-long injury, than he was sidelined for a month, banned for cuffing Ospreys' Jonathan Thomas with a flailing elbow.
It really did feel like the end of the party.
This season, the jolliness was confined to within Munster borders. There were no screaming headlines, no police calls and no prospect of controversy for months on end.
Munster travelled to Clare, firstly frequenting Fanny O'Dea's in Lissycasey before pitching up in Newmarket-on-Fergus on the way back to Limerick for a bite to eat.
They finished off the night in Barry Murphy's Curragower bar in Limerick, an appropriate choice given that the erstwhile Munster centre had seen his career cruelly cut short with injury last season.
Twelve months on from what many believe to be their darkest hour, Munster are sitting pretty in one of the Heineken Cup's toughest pools, with a 4-0 record and an expected five-pointer at home to Castres to come in January.
Munster may be judged on Europe, but their rehabilitation this past calendar year was backboned by success in the Magners League, a title they lifted last May after defeating the Heineken Cup champions and their fiercest rivals, Leinster.
The province's ethos demanded silverware to compensate for their Heineken Cup exits. Some supporters demanded more, and chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald was forced to publicly offer coach Tony McGahan a vote of confidence.
Heads did roll -- chiefly that of much-criticised forwards coach Laurie Fisher -- while prop Tony Buckley was packed off to Sale after under-performing in Munster's key Heineken Cup pool showdown away to the Ospreys.
McGahan, one of the most talented coaches in the game here, spotted the decline of Tomas O'Leary's form well before Declan Kidney. More importantly, he acted upon it and Irish rugby can thank the Australian for his summary promotion of Conor Murray.
Anthony Foley became more integral to the coaching staff and Munster, who had been attempting a more expansive game under McGahan, not helped by Fisher's weaknesses, returned to basics.
As stalwarts such as Alan Quinlan, John Hayes, Ian Dowling and Murphy exited the stage, Munster, who used 52 players last season, were belatedly forced to chug their conveyor belt into action.
At once, Munster's decade-long reliance on so many familiar, trusted performers exposed the fact that the succession policy was wafer-thin at best, particularly compared to Leinster's remarkable success in promoting youth.
Within a two-year period, a Munster squad that had twice collected the Heineken Cup as well as the Magners League trophy was suddenly deprived of one-third of its number. No team in the global game could sustain such a haemorrhaging of talent.
Injuries to O'Connell, Denis Leamy and Donnacha Ryan compounded the side's woes last term.
This time around, Munster have been buoyed by a fit-again O'Connell, operating at the peak of his powers, as well as some imperious displays from Ronan O'Gara. The scrum and line-out have been strengthened, and core values, overseen by Foley, have been renewed.
McGahan, whose contract expires at the end of this season, has paradoxically been liberated from the pressures and, notwithstanding the absence of all his first-choice back-three during most of the Heineken Cup, he has coped admirably with the injury crisis.
It helps that the kids are more than alright.
"We've been working hard in that area," he said after Sean Scanlon's try-scoring debut last week followed that of Luke O'Dea earlier this month.
"They need opportunity and they need work and we've cultivated that over the last four years. Obviously with the age profile of the squad, those opportunities were limited. But as time goes on and they gather experience, they're able to put themselves into the frame a little more."
Ian Keatley, recruited from Connacht, will start against Ulster tonight in a fresh-faced side brimming with indigenous talent.
"We've got a lot of confidence in him," says McGahan. "We brought him here with an eye on this situation and the future. We've had a lot of No 10s trying to establish themselves here and for a lot of them, it hasn't really worked out.
"He's had his run earlier this season. Ronan then came in and played exceptionally well, arguably some of his best form ever. Now Ian has got his chance again.
"He's got a few things to work on but overall we're delighted with the way he's performing."
Asked to sum up Hayes after his final game, McGahan had mentioned three words -- humility, durability and respect.
Twelve months after a watershed month, he could easily have been talking about Munster. The warm feeling has returned.