Saturday 10 December 2016

Anthony Foley has much work to do after topsy-turvy campaign

Published 02/06/2015 | 02:30

Anthony Foley is badly in need of new leaders at Munster, but where will they come from?
Anthony Foley is badly in need of new leaders at Munster, but where will they come from?

So how was 2014/'15 for you? For Joe Schmidt, Ireland and the IRFU, it was a memorable jaunt that even last Thursday's poor showing against the Barbarians couldn't ruin, but for the rest of the Irish rugby family there will be mixed emotions about the season just finished.

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For the first time since 2010, no Irish team has one of the three major trophies resting in their cabinet and for the four provinces there has been some denting of pride as the swing in the balance of power firmly rested with the union.

In a World Cup year, that's perhaps as it should be but there is room for improvement across the board at provincial level.

By the end of June, they'll all be back at the starting-line; Leinster with their new coach and Ulster preparing for Les Kiss's arrival when he's released from Ireland duty. New dawns offer the chance to put the memories of disappointing seasons to bed.

At Connacht, they face the challenge of beating their best ever finish and, despite a poor run-in, Pat Lam has something to build on.

By far that toughest campaign to analyse is that of Munster who were the last Irish team standing and the highest finishers on the Pro12 table, but finished in such disappointing circumstances when overwhelmed by Glasgow last Saturday and exited Europe at the pool stage.

For Anthony Foley, there is a concerning trend emerging for the Reds who were able to beat smaller teams consistently but failed to rise to the occasion on the biggest days.

Against Clermont at home, Saracens away and in the Pro12 final, they were blown away by better teams who ran them ragged. On two of those occasions, they went into battle without Conor Murray and his absence was compounded last weekend by the loss of captain Peter O'Mahony.

Top of Foley's to-do list will be developing a core of leaders outside of his Ireland squad members and he'll have a good opportunity to do so when they head off to England and Wales for the World Cup and the Pro12 continues without them. There will be a sizeable turnover of players at Thomond Park this summer, with Paul O'Connell by far the biggest loss any of the provinces will suffer.

Munster just need to ask Leinster about the impact the departure of their leaders has had.

However, the Ireland captain reserved most of his big performances for the green jersey this season and Foley will hope that Donnacha Ryan's return to fitness will help ease the transition while recruiting some experience and quality from abroad.

Struggles

The province's struggles in the transfer market mean that former All Black Francis Saili is the only big-name arrival due and he won't be available until November, at which point he'll have been on the go for nine months.

Tyler Bleyendaal will add to the options and Foley will hope that the Kiwi can push Ian Keatley hard for the No 10 jersey and force a response from the Dubliner who shone at times this season, but finished extremely poorly.

The coach stuck firmly with his first-choice fly-half to the point that JJ Hanrahan felt compelled to leave for Northampton and the Kerry native's spark was rarely seen thereafter. His ability to inject pace and vision into a game will be missed.

Whether Tomas O'Leary can sustain his fitness after an injury-hit last campaign with London Irish remains to be seen. The hope is that he can be a steady hand at the tiller when Murray is away, but the former Ireland No 9 is not the player he was when Declan Kidney made him an important part of his Grand Slam-winning side.

Second place in the Pro12 should hand Munster a good seeding in Europe and, after facing Clermont and Saracens in the pool stages, they'll have their fingers crossed for a good draw on June 17.

That gives them a head start on their rivals when Europe gets under way, but to take advantage they need to sort out a number of issues that have raised their heads over the course of Foley's first campaign in charge and dealing with the absence of their Ireland contingent will be right at the top.

Irish Independent

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