Munster in market for 'top player' to replace Paul O'Connell as he urges lesser lights to step up
Anthony Foley says Munster will look to recruit a replacement for Paul O'Connell when the second-row confirms his departure from the province.
The Ireland captain is widely expected to confirm a €1.2m move to Toulon in the coming days and, while Foley would prefer the 35-year-old to go out on a high after the World Cup, he says he will play no part in the player's decision.
So, Munster must plan for their future without another of the greats who willed them to the top of European rugby during the 2000s.
Having watched his side struggle in the absence of two of his key leaders, Peter O'Mahony and Conor Murray, in Saturday's Pro12 final defeat, Foley must have some concerns over their ability to cope without O'Connell.
So, he will enter discussions with the IRFU and the province to recruit a second-row of some standing.
"Yeah, I think when we get to that situation we will probably have to go to the market," he said.
"Then again we have the likes of Dave Foley, Billy Holland, Donnacha Ryan. You still have Donncha O'Callaghan. You've Sean McCarthy, John Madigan coming through, so we have players we've earmarked for progression, but in the competitions that we play in you need top players as well and Paul O'Connell is a top player.
"You'd like to believe that if you lose him, you need to replace him.
"When I worked with Ireland a season or two ago, when he got injured, Donnacha Ryan stepped in and did a very good job at international rugby, so there's no question that Donnacha Ryan can do a job for Munster in that kind of role, but it will be a Donnacha Ryan role, not a Paul O'Connell role."
However, Munster's struggles in the transfer market to date do not bode well for the process.
Francis Saili is their one marquee addition for next season, but he was well down their list of outside-centres when they first set out to sign a big name, while they have failed to land a hooker as both Agustin Creevy and Craig Burden rebuffed their offers.
It is late in the day to go to the market, with most clubs having done their business early. O'Connell's decision to demur on making a public announcement has left Munster short of time in a World Cup year.
BJ Botha is only in contract until the end of December, with no sign of a replacement on the horizon, and the South African demonstrated that he remains their most potent scrummager on Saturday.
Each province is technically allowed to have three non-Irish qualified player plus one 'special project' and Munster have two of each on the books for next season in Botha, Saili, Tyler Bleyendaal and Gerhard van den Heever. CJ Stander qualifies for Ireland in November.
However, given the IRFU would have to give O'Connell permission to leave as he is under contract, Foley will speak to David Nucifora about getting an exemption as he looks to build on his first season.
"We've BJ in six months so there is room there to wriggle around that. So we just have to ask the question around it," he said. "I don't think this has ever happened before (a player being released to leave), so we'll ask the question.
"That's important but it's important that when our foreign players come to the end of their careers, there's people behind that are stepping up.
"A case in point is Stephen Archer. He has stuck in behind BJ Botha for the last three years and now he's emerging as a fine tighthead. Hopefully we can get to the stage where Stephen can take the mantle off BJ and kick on."
Munster are said to be looking for a clause in any potential contract to prevent O'Connell lining up against them if drawn together in Europe, but whether such an agreement is workable remains in question.
Foley's preference is clearly for the former Lions captain to sign off at the World Cup.
"It'd be a fitting end for him. They can have a right crack off it. There's no reason why he couldn't walk off a winner," he said.
The province are also interested in recruiting Clontarf centre Matt D'Arcy, but face competition from Connacht for the Ulster Bank League player of the year.