Sunday 4 December 2016

Munster's glorious past can no longer bail out their gloomy present

Published 16/04/2016 | 02:30

We thought that Munster hit rock bottom when they were forced into the knock-outs of the Challenge Cup back in 2011 – or
We thought that Munster hit rock bottom when they were forced into the knock-outs of the Challenge Cup back in 2011 – or "the plate" as Ronan O'Gara called it at the time – but that was only a glass floor compared to now (SPORTSFILE)

Tackle low. Full-on," Jerry Flannery said. "Full-on?" Donnacha Ryan asked. "Yeah" Flannery replied. Flannery got into position with the tackle bag at Munster training at the University of Limerick earlier this week. Ryan got the message and went full-on in the drill.

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Flannery, a two-time Heineken Cup winner as a player, took the tackles which came his way. Someone, somewhere could have scripted this scene as Munster's present colliding with its past.

Next month's 10-year anniversary of Munster's first Heineken Cup title couldn't come at a worse time for the present team. It highlights even more - as if we need a reminder - just how far Munster have fallen in Europe since May 20, 2006.

Nothing will compare to that day in the Millennium Stadium for Munster. Back then, after the burst of relief and joy, there were hopes of European domination and dreams of creating a dynasty.

Ten years on, after two seasons of failing to get out of the pool stage in Europe, the conversation in 2016 has been further downgraded to lines like "imagine if Munster don't qualify for the Champions Cup next season?"

That magic about Munster has long vanished. European club rugby is a different landscape. There's no dreaming big right now. Or big crowds. The event junkies who followed for the kicks of getting a hit off the province's success have long left the scene, leaving empty seats and the Munster faithful at Thomond Park.

Munster's game with Leinster at the Aviva Stadium a few weeks ago was such a let-down. Their rivalry is now just a cardboard cut-out of what it used to be.

Struggle

And nobody epitomises more the struggle between Munster's past and present than Anthony Foley. The man who captained Munster to their first Heineken Cup success in '06 is at risk of having his reputation damaged because he took on his dream job of Munster head coach.

That's the horrible side but it's the reality of sport. And you certainly aren't owed anything just because you gave your all as a player.

Foley can't be blamed for taking the job a year or so earlier than perhaps even he expected to get it. But whatever about entitlement, he is entitled to time.

Foley is the first player from those successful Munster and Leinster Heineken-Cup winning teams to show there is little immunity when you make the switch (Leo Cullen is still only in his first year as head coach with Leinster) to take charge of your home province.

Your past counts for nothing if you're not delivering in the present.

And Munster's struggles this season are a warning to every other player with ambitions of coaching their home province.

The way Munster were able to hang onto the coat-tails of their past at times is biting back now.

We were almost conditioned to believe that the impossible could happen and the improbable was as good as nailed-on when it came to Munster and finding a way to win.

Years after the second Heineken Cup in 2008, Munster were still making semi-finals of Europe right up to two years ago as they wrung every last drop out of the sum of their parts.

We thought that Munster hit rock bottom when they were forced into the knock-outs of the Challenge Cup back in 2011 - or "the plate" as Ronan O'Gara called it at the time - but that was only a glass floor compared to now.

We still enjoyed crazy moments like JJ Hanrahan scoring that late try against Perpignan in the Heineken Cup pool game in France in December 2013, and this always against the backdrop of claims that Munster were finished.

But that past self-belief is no longer able to bail out the present. The embarrassing defeat to Stade Francais in Paris in January was a game where the players seemed to almost wait for something or someone to bail them out without really trying to make it happen themselves.

They may suffer from constant comparisons with previous sides, but the current players aren't making this Munster team their own.

This is something Keith Earls brought up in conversation this week.

"Before, we could fall back on Paulie or Rog or Dougie. It's up to us now to take-over it as our team and not be babysat," Earls said.

"It has to be player-driven. Coaches are there to make sure you have the game-plan. If we're not happy with it, we have to let our voices be known. We can't just go along with it."

Munster come face to face with their past at the Sportsground today.

Connacht have become everything that Munster were. They're the big draw, they're got the neutral supporter on their side and they're exciting to watch.

O'Gara saw it as he watched Connacht play Grenoble from his home in Paris last weekend. "My mum and dad were over and I just said to them 'It's like Munster 15 years ago'. Them all supping pints in the crowd, everyone going bananas," O'Gara said in an interview with this newspaper.

Munster has a rich history and tradition. But this present team needs to find its own identity.

Start with the basics against Connacht today. Like tackle low. Full-on.

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