Hurley's exit moves Munster further from the golden years
Published 11/05/2016 | 02:30
And then there was one. Confirmation of Denis Hurley's exit yesterday means Tomas O'Leary is the last man standing from the team that won Munster's second Heineken Cup in 2008.
Donnacha Ryan and Keith Earls were unused replacements on that famous day in Cardiff and remain part of the set-up, but when Rassie Erasmus sends his team into battle next season he will have less European Cup-winning experience to call on than any Munster coach in the last decade.
The full-back turned centre may well continue at another club next season; neither his statement nor the province's indicated whether he would retire or move and it appears he will attempt to continue his career elsewhere.
But the departure of a man who won 166 caps for the province, representing Ireland once in 2009, means the loss of one of the hardest working squad-members who made a stellar contribution to his home province over the course of 10 years in red.
Of the men who started in the team that beat Toulouse at the Millennium Stadium in 2008, only Hurley, O'Leary and Donnacha O'Callaghan (Worcester Warriors) are still playing and the retirement of a generation of winners is one of the reasons the province have found themselves in such a predicament in recent seasons.
Hurley and O'Leary were the new kids on the block that season, introduced by Declan Kidney mid-way through the campaign instead of seasoned campaigners Shaun Payne and Peter Stringer in a move that was hailed as a major factor in securing the second European title in three years.
The 31-year-old was one of six players whose departures were confirmed yesterday, with Springbok tighthead prop BJ Botha, scrum-half Cathal Sheridan, project player Gerhard van den Heever and back-row pair Shane Buckley and Jordan Coghlan all exiting Thomond Park.
Erasmus is understood to be in Limerick this week along with his soon-to-be-appointed defence coach Jacques Nienabar as they begin planning for next season.
In particular, the loss of Botha and Hurley will thieve the director of rugby of real experience. Hurley led the team in Peter O'Mahony's absence last season, captaining the side in their Guinness Pro12 final defeat to Glasgow Warriors.
"He's shown a lot of character," Anthony Foley said at the time. "He's one of the few guys left with a Heineken Cup medal and he doesn't go around beating his chest about it, but when he speaks everybody listens."
His absence this season with ankle and calf injuries has not been widely spoken about when discussing Foley's issues this campaign and, while Rory Scannell and Francis Saili have formed a strong centre partnership, his loss has been felt.
Botha will be replaced by Ulsterman John Andress next season, while second-row Darren O'Shea is returning to the province from Worcester.
Other than that, Erasmus has some work to do if he wants to increase the playing resources available to him next season with the squad looking shallow in certain positions.
After a season in which they almost lost their place at the top table in Europe, the South African's job is to restore the two-time champions to their former glories.
He will have to do it with a squad that contributed little to the two stars on the jersey and the challenge for the next generation of players is to get back to the level.
With Hurley's departure, the connection between Munster's glorious past and the present day squad became weaker. He walks away with his head high and a prized medal in his pocket.