After a season of unsettling failure, forensic self-examination is needed down south, writes Hugh Farrelly
Published 18/05/2010 | 05:00
THE post-mortems have begun in earnest down Munster way.
The nature of the semi-finals defeats to Biarritz and Leinster have rendered the self-examination process particularly harrowing, stretching from the Munster team room, through a multitude of media and online outlets, all the way down to the punter-pontification podiums of water cooler and bar stool.
We have been here before. After Munster lost a pulsating Heineken Cup semi-final to Wasps at Lansdowne Road in 2004, the autopsy was lengthy and far-reaching and, two years later, the province was claiming its first Heineken Cup title in Cardiff, returning for their second a couple of years later.
There is a tendency towards hysteria in these situations when rational reasoning is required.
The positives point to Munster making the last-four of both Heineken and Magners competitions despite having to cope with extended periods without front-line players, through a combination of injury and international commitments.
Furthermore, the fact that they are going into a World Cup year means (rational) expectations should be lowered next season as Ireland coach Declan Kidney seeks even more control over his international standard-bearers.
This facilitates the development of the next generation of Munster players and there was good work done in this regard this season which has not received the credit it deserves.
The negatives revolve around an overall inconsistency and weakening of the long-established dominance of the Munster forwards. It has reduced the aura that built up around this team from the start of the last decade and the upshot is that opponents no longer fear Munster they way they used to -- even at Thomond Park.
That is more than enough to merit an extensive review, with five key strands under the microscope.
Irish by birth, Munster by the grace of God? Not so much. The backgrounds of the four senior coaches and team manager comprise Queensland, Canberra, Cape Town and Taranaki, with only scrum guru Paul McCarthy coming up through a traditional Munster rugby route of PBC Cork, Dolphin and Cork Constitution.
McCarthy was brought on board only in the last few months, not enough time to save a Munster scrum that was destroyed in the season-defining defeats to Biarritz and Leinster.
The fact that Munster's lineout has struggled over the past two seasons and has not been the secure bastion of possession it had been since the days of John Langford means the spotlight has fallen on forwards coach Laurie Fisher. The Australian comes across as intelligent, articulate and technically capable but that counts for nought if his packs struggle with the basics.
Team manager Shaun Payne and backs coach Jason Holland earned their Munster stripes as players while head coach Tony McGahan was a key figure in the two Heineken Cup triumphs as defence coach under Declan Kidney.
However, contract issues notwithstanding, the calls for a 'born-and-reared' Munster man in a senior role are loud and widespread and there are several heavy-hitting figures on the scene.
Donal Lenihan and Jerry Holland (both CBC Cork, UCC, Cork Con) are authoritative management figures with proud Munster pasts, as is Shannon legend and ex-Munster and Ireland forwards coach Niall O'Donovan (now helping out with Highfield), while Michael Bradley (PBC Cork, Cork Con) is another Munster heavyweight on the market.
There is also O'Donovan's protégé Anthony Foley, who has done excellent work with the A team and definitely looks to be one for the future. All the talk may lead to nothing but, in this most tribal of provinces, this issue is not about to go away any time soon.
As McGahan noted after the loss to Leinster, the age profile of his players was always going to attract attention this campaign. However, while the Munster squad contains its share of thirtysomethings, so does Leinster's and there is still potency in Munster's old guard.
Alan Quinlan, Donncha O'Callaghan, Jerry Flannery, Mick O'Driscoll and David Wallace are all over 30 but enjoyed productive seasons and there is power to return post-injury in the shape of Paul O'Connell, Denis Leamy and Donnacha Ryan.
Veteran half-backs Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer have still got big roles to play and when you factor in the likes of Tomas O'Leary, Paul Warwick, Lifeimi Mafi, Keith Earls, Denis Hurley and James Coughlan -- as well as the younger set coming through -- you are left with a powerful squad.
The overseas acquisitions of the past two seasons have been hit and miss, however. Nick Williams was not a good buy, for a variety of reasons. Julien Brugnaut (who won the last of his two caps for France the day the Irish scrum secured a penalty try at the Stade de France in 2008) was not the front-row enforcer it was hoped he would be and centre Jean de Villiers, after a shaky start, played well but did not have enough of an influence to drag Munster over the line against Biarritz or Leinster.
Sam Tuitupou could turn out to be an excellent acquisition but the number of non-Irish qualified players in the Munster back line has not been in the national interest.
This is an area where there is reason for Munster optimism. It has been consistently suggested that Leinster's Academy is further along the road than Munster's but there is some serious talent being produced down south. Dave Ryan, with the ability and attitude to build on progress made this season, is going to be a serious propping prospect, Damien Varley has impressed at hooker and second-row Ian Nagle also looks to be heading in the right direction. In the back row, there are Tommy O'Donnell, Patrick Butler and Eoghan Grace, while Peter O'Mahony has impressed this season as a natural openside.
Duncan Williams, with an injury-free run of games, has confirmed his quality at scrum-half, while Scott Deasy made his mark in the senior squad to the point where was on the shortlist for Magners League Young Player of the Season.
Throw the likes of Simon Zebo, Declan Cusack and Danny Barnes into the mix and it is a pretty healthy situation, particularly with the extra game-time likely to be afforded to the younger crew next season.
Much was made of the fact that no Munster player was brought to the press conference in the wake of last weekend's defeat to Leinster.
In truth, it barely raised a quizzical eyebrow at the time, as the Munster capacity for poor pubic relations, particularly in the wake of defeat, has long since failed to surprise.
There is a PR prickliness down south which does not reflect the character of players who, individually, whether with province, Ireland or the Lions, come across well.
But there has been an overall tendency to indulge a chip on the shoulder, 'us against the world' mentality that may once have had a certain currency in their early European adventures but now has no place in what is otherwise an ultra-professional outfit.
Munster supporters rightly earned a reputation as the best in Europe over 10 years of epic adventuring and the sexy success story won over a lot of new admirers to swell the ranks of the Red Army.
Their power was emphasised by the redevelopment of the magnificent, 26,000-capacity Thomond Park.
However, if the big names are away and Munster continue to produce inconsistent results, it will be instructive to see how many of the recent recruits to the 'brave and faithful' hang around.