Friday 9 December 2016

David Kelly: Munster's pitiful season will reap what it sowed

Published 07/05/2016 | 02:30

Dejected Munster players after conceding a third try in their Pro12 match against Connacht at the Sportsground in Galway last month. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Dejected Munster players after conceding a third try in their Pro12 match against Connacht at the Sportsground in Galway last month. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Munster head coach Anthony Foley. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile

"They're being well-managed, well-run, they've got good systems and processes in place, so their success on the field doesn't happen by accident. There's no reason why that model can't work elsewhere."

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Those words were recently uttered by the effective commander-in-chief of the IRFU, David Nucifora.

They referred to Connacht. But reverse the message and it might as well apply to Munster.

Not well managed? Tick. Not well run? Tick. Bad systems? Tick. Bad processes in place? Tick. Lack of success on the field not happening by accident? Tick.

A perfect model for failure in a season which limps towards a conclusion this afternoon.

Nucifora was, you can imagine, pretty chuffed to be in a position to trumpet Connacht, a province his predecessors once threatened to extinguish for all time.

You would also be correct in surmising that this is the template that the Australian wishes to apply to the province currently languishing in fourth place in the domestic roll of honour.

Perhaps, this summer, a few of the boys and girls from Galway will speed down to Limerick and, you know, show them how it's all done. . .

And to think it is less than a decade since Munster were seriously challenging the All Blacks in terms of global recognition.

Secession

Some suggested - without drink being taken - that perhaps they might ponder secession from the IRFU and see how far they could survive independently amongst the giants of European and world rugby.

Instead, Munster are now passing the begging bowl. Not alone, admittedly, in succumbing to harsh economic reality, the stadium they constructed at the height of the boom has become a harbinger of doom.

A €9m millstone around their necks. Annual losses, when revealed this summer, are likely to have had at least another €800,000 lobbed on to them as the IRFU's number crunchers prepare an emergency loan to bridge the yawning deficit.

It was never feasible under Irish rugby's structure but if some smart boy in the Munster Branch had decided to wing it back in the good times, it might have been more than a bail-out they were looking for this summer.

This time last season, Munster had also tanked in Europe but at least were challenging for a Pro12 title under an indigenous Irish coaching ticket.

They would eventually lose to the only truly outstanding side in the competition, Glasgow, whose own failures in Europe puts the standard of the league in some sort of context.

In November of this season, Munster topped the league, had won six out of seven league games - including scalping the champions - but nobody really paid any attention because the World Cup was on.

When people did start paying attention, the wheels came off, beginning spectacularly with a first-in-a-generation loss to Connacht, before a disrupted Champions Cup campaign ended in an embarrassing submission against 14 men in Paris.

Four successive months of rugby took its toll on coaches and players who were struggling to keep faith in each other; the problem with Paris was that they failed each other.

As much as the players and coaches urged their faithful to keep the faith, fewer and fewer did so, with either Cork half-full or Limerick sometimes far less than half-full as fans voted with their feet.

Five successive defeats at the turn of the year scuppered their title hopes on two fronts; the frustrating thing for the fitful squad was that, especially against Leicester, they put themselves in good positions but were unable to seal the deal.

Tactical indecision on and off the field, uncertainty at out-half and a defensive weakness that required the emergency short-term deployment of new Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell - without any notable effect, it must be said - contributed to the appalling malaise.

"If I don't feel I can get results, there's no point in being here," lamented Anthony Foley at his lowest ebb.

Behind the scenes, Munster CEO Garrett Fitzgerald, himself now under pressure after his organisation palpably struggled to hit their targets, brought forward by a year moves to recruit a director of rugby (DOR) to help their flailing coach.

Foley's Irish assistants were put on notice that their terms would only be assessed once that appointment was filled, while Foley (right) belatedly exercised his right to secure an extra year on his contract.

And yet he had no input into the genuinely impressive coup in securing Johann Erasmus as the new DOR and he has no idea what significance, if any, he will bring to the coaching ticket next season.

All the while, Munster chugged their way in and out of the final Champions Cup qualifying places; at least, they entered the final two games with their destiny in their own hands.

"We weren't the greatest people in the world when we got to the final of the Pro12 last season, we are not the worst people in the world at the moment," he has said.

Leinster, with a mostly indigenous coaching ticket which may also need some hired help if one listens to the runes emanating from IRFU HQ, also flopped in Europe but have been saved by Pro12 form; the fact that they have lost just one match less than their southern rivals reflects the fine margins.

Injuries to all their overseas players, and captain Peter O'Mahony, and refereeing issues could, and should, be masked if a team are good enough. Munster simply weren't.

"As with players, there is a balancing act with everything and sport has a lot of ups and downs. That's the nature of it. We just need to keep a very balanced view on what and who we are and make sure we get the best out of people. It is a tough place for everyone to be," said Foley.

"Back in October we were top of the pile, come now we are sitting in seventh spot.

"You scratch your head and wonder why, you go through it and get as many reports as you want, try to understand why. But we are where we are and we need to figure it out."

The bottom line, though, is evident.

"It's unfortunate to not go any further in the competition," Foley adds. "But you know, you get what you deserve out of the year."

By 4.45 this evening, Munster will find out precisely what that entails.

Munster to avoid Scarlet fever

The slow bicycle race towards securing their uninterrupted Champions Cup status steers into Limerick this afternoon, and Munster simply can't afford a blow-out at this stage.

As it was in Cork against Edinburgh last week, the scenario is relatively straight-forward. Which would be fine if only much of Munster's season thus far hasn't been. They just need to win.

Munster lie four points clear of the Ospreys (who host Ulster), and five clear of Edinburgh, who remain in the hunt with an outside shot at home to Cardiff, but the Reds could be hampered by the worst points differential of the trio.

Two match points would eliminate all algorithms and put Anthony Foley's men clear of both challengers; anything less, however, could see them overtaken by Ospreys were they to get all five.

Of course, the preferable scenario to suit both Irish provinces would be to complete a convenient Welsh double which would do each of them a favour.

Essentially, for their part, Scarlets need to claim a point more than Ulster today to retain Welsh hopes of a play-off. But their hopes took a tumble when Wales centre Scott Williams was ruled out with a hamstring issue.

Munster, for the first time this troublesome campaign, are unchanged as they seek to bow out on a high note.

Verdict: Munster

Munster - S Zebo; A Conway, F Saili, R Scannell, K Earls; J Holland, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, S Archer; D Foley, B Holland; D O'Callaghan, T O'Donnell, CJ Stander (capt). Reps: M Sherry, J Cronin, J Ryan, R Copeland, J O'Donoghue, D Williams, I Keatley, R O'Mahony.

Scarlets - L Williams; G Owen, S Hughes, H Parkes, S Evans; S Shingler, A Davies; R Evans, K Owens (capt), P Edwards; J Ball, D Bulbring; L Rawlins, J Davies, J Barclay. Reps: R Elias, D Evans, R Jones, T Price, M Allen, G Davies, A Thomas, M Tagicakibau.

Ref - N Owens (WRU).

Munster v Scarlets,

Live, S4C, 3.0

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