Friday 28 July 2017

Munster's Mr Right Now approach is fit for purpose

Ryan's surprise departure and concern over Erasmus' future won't distract men in red from the task at hand against Toulouse

Munster’s Donnacha Ryan is the leading second row in Irish rugby. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster’s Donnacha Ryan is the leading second row in Irish rugby. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Samantha Jones may have been on to something with her approach to her love life in the HBO series 'Sex and the City'.

While other characters fretted about finding Mr Right, Samantha wanted Mr Right Now. She made playing the short-game look straightforward and uncomplicated rather than getting bogged down with past failures or future options.

The top brass at the IRFU should not need to embrace their inner Samantha to appreciate the Mr Right Now value of Donnacha Ryan as the leading second-row forward in Irish rugby.

The union's attempt to play the long-game came off as short-sighted when Ryan lost his national contract because when a player is the in-form player in that position in the country surely that should guarantee his future with a national contract rather than any concerns about previous injuries or age or future stock in the game? Ryan finished last month's Six Nations effectively as Ireland's first-choice lock after Devin Toner was benched for the England finale with Iain Henderson promoted alongside Ryan. Lock isn't like other positions in Irish rugby right now with a raft of Test-ready alternatives because other players haven't progressed as quickly as expected for a range of reasons including injury.

When you know what the future is bringing it forces you to look at the present a bit harder. Maybe we will get a clearer picture of Ryan's situation from himself when he speaks at some stage about his impending move to Racing 92.

confusion But like the way Joe Schmidt publicly explains his selections for our national team, we need the same kind of explaining, where appropriate, from the union when it comes to future-deciding contracts which would give supporters a better understanding and ease the confusion somewhat. Because, as can be conveniently forgotten at times, it is meant to be 'our' national and provincial teams.

Equally, when you don't know what the future is bringing it also forces you to look a bit harder at the present. We went to Limerick at the start of this week expecting Rassie Erasmus to flatly deny the renewed speculation linking him with a return to South Africa at the end of the season.

Erasmus seems like a man who is more open with the media and, by extension, the public. While he said he's got a three-year contract and expects to be with Munster next season, some of his answers were open to an interpretation that maybe everything isn't necessarily on lock-down until the end of 2018/'19.

"You try to just focus on the job at hand which is a quarter-final and then maybe if there's an outside chance I'll start focusing on things like that but it would be very unfair on a big week like this focusing on that," Erasmus said on Monday.

It is indicative of a season where taking things for granted has been a fool's game. Don't be silly, of course New Zealand will beat Ireland in Chicago? Blimey. Of course Ireland are going to win their Six Nations opener in Edinburgh? Scratch that. Of course Pat Lam will stay in Connacht after last season's ground-breaking success? Breaking: Lam's leaving. Of course Donnacha Ryan will never leave Munster? Breaking: Munster hearts. Of course Erasmus will stay in Munster for three seasons and maybe even longer? Well, we don't know anything for sure, do we?

Nothing has shown us the heartbreaking transience of life like the death of Anthony Foley. We went to Thomond Park the day after his burial not knowing or unable to imagine what to expect from Munster players in that Glasgow game. But they played like a team that was going to find a way to win that day, regardless of what was going to be thrown at them, like being reduced to 14 men when Keith Earls was sent off in the 19th minute,

Since October Munster have been putting into practice the notion that nothing can be taken for granted. A team which has enjoyed a past like Munster's can leave skid-marks of a sense of entitlement that they will always be able to mix it with the European big boys. And it is understandable when Munster kept defying the written-off proclamations when they produced days like the last time Munster played Toulouse in a European Cup quarter-final at Thomond Park in 2014. Paul O'Connell scored a try in the last minute for a whopping 47-23 win which felt like a day borrowed from Munster's glorious past.

This season Munster have come out of the shadow of the former great teams and are coming into their own. They won in Glasgow and Paris in Europe, they went on a winning run for a while and all the time Erasmus had a knack of keeping players level-headed.

Satisfied He doesn't seem to do self-congratulation and plays down wins in post-match interviews; after their New Year's Eve derby win over Connacht at the Sportsground, Erasmus said he was "not happy but satisfied". His manner and humour was first evident to us at the Champions Cup launch last October when he made a joke at Munster's expense: "When you look at the pool, you look for the easy games and when you look at this group you quickly realise you are the easy game. We have to change that perception."

He has. Along with defence coach Jacques Nienaber, they have made Munster the meanest defence in the Champions Cup this season with only four tries conceded in the pool stage (all of which were scored in the second half of games) which was the fewest tries conceded by a team in the tournament so far. The right chemistry is coming from the top down.

"He's emotionally intelligent," Jerry Flannery said about Erasmus in an interview with Sky Sports this week. "What he's done is he came in, he empowered all of us as coaches. He empowered Axel. He helped develop me as a coach. He brought Felix Jones on board. He brought Jacques Nienaber, who's one of the best coaches I've ever come across in my life, into Munster. He creates an environment where hard work and honesty is rewarded and it genuinely is rewarded."

There can be an over-used tendency in sport to frame a series of experiences as 'journeys' where the endpoint will seemingly justify the ups and downs of what the players involved have gone through. We've done it with Munster in the past - their 'journey' to their first Heineken Cup final, their first Heineken Cup, their second and so on.

This season feels different because it is different to any other season due to what happened last October. Munster are also playing a game which is effective because it is not overly-complicated but is intelligently fit for purpose for this group of players. Munster are a team of Mr Right Now players. And who knows where that they could take them.

Irish Independent

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