Tuesday 19 September 2017

New era of change beckons for Munster as Heineken Cup draws to a close

A new dawn of European rugby looms on the horizon with Munster facing into a time of great change to keep pace with European heavyweights, says Declan Whooley.

Munster's participation in the Heineken Cup ended at the Stade Vélodrome against French powerhouses Toulon.
Munster's participation in the Heineken Cup ended at the Stade Vélodrome against French powerhouses Toulon.
Declan Whooley

Declan Whooley

The line was a throw-away comment towards the end of the match report in the winter of 1995 in an English newspaper.

Munster began their Heineken Cup career in November 1995 on a Wednesday night with victory over Swansea. For the 6,000 hardy souls in attendance on a winter’s day at Thomond Park, it was the occasion, rather than the performance, that was likely to live long in the memory.

Strong favourites to defeat their youthful opponents, the home side trailed going into the last quarter before captain and full-back Pat Murray snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with just minutes remaining after clever play from out-half Paul Burke.

“A one-dimensional Munster made little of their wind assisted third-quarter territorial supremacy,” David Hughes suggested in his match report.

A dramatic win in difficult conditions and a begrudging respect in the aftermath – the “one-dimensional” tag would prove difficult to shake – was a most fitting way to establish what would become a 19 year-love affair with the Heineken Cup.

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Paul O'Connell lifts the Heineken Cup in 2008 - one of my greatest memories as a Munster fan

What started in Limerick ended in Marseilles at the penultimate stage as Toulon ended fanciful notions that the underdogs would add yet another scalp to the bulging scrapbook. For the second successive season, the French side reached the tournament decider without scoring a try at the semi-final stage, with the boot of Jonny Wilkinson enough to prevail.

The French juggernaut was slowed, but ultimately could not be stopped. It was a brave Munster effort, but gallant defeat was their lot. Even allowing for two titles, four final appearances and participation in every campaign, it perhaps was the agonising defeats which fostered such a close bond with the Irish public, never mind the growing Red Army.

It is a connection that Leinster failed to acquire to the same degree for a number of reasons, but chief among them was that they were simply more ruthless in the deciders.  When the opportunity to claim silverware presented itself, they didn't need to be asked twice. Sporting sympathy is generally reserved for the grand-scale defeats.

While the competition has evolved rapidly, change has been slower for Munster.

In that opening victory over Swansea in 1995, only three players were born outside these shores. Paul Burke and Gabriel Fulcher would claim 33 caps between them for Ireland, while centre Sean McCahill was an All Black. 

Fast-forward to Marseilles and all but three players had represented Ireland at some level. Captain Peter O’Mahony would have reduced this even further but for injury.

Contrast this to their opponents Toulon who had just two French players in their fantasy-like team in Mathieu Bastareaud and Sebastien Tillous-Borde. If Saracens remain unchanged for the final, their contingent of eight English internationals will appear monumental by comparison.

Mathieu Bastareaud is one of Toulon's two exceptional talents

Certainly a far cry from the inaugural Heineken Cup Final where fourteen Welshmen – Kiwi Hemi Taylor was at the time a Welsh international through residency rules -  faced off against fifteen Frenchman as Toulouse edged the Cardiff Blues in extra-time at the Arms Park.

While Munster’s stance on Irish selection is borne out of financial necessity and is admirable, beneficial for the national team – the basis of inter-provincial existence we are led to believe – and also adopted by fellow Irish provinces, the constraints are telling.

Munster are drifting away from the mega-rich pack, with Ulster and Leinster also showing signs that life in the fast lane of European rugby is more challenging than ever before. The Rugby Champions Cup could be a whole different ball game for Irish sides looking to compete at the business end of the season.

Toulon have an operating budget in excess of €21.9 million, at least three times that of Munster, while the French salary cap has increased by €1.3 million in just two years.

Measures are being taken, but more may well be required. Musgrave Park will become the Irish Independent Park while Thomond Park could also be sold to the highest bidder, despite reservations among the die-hards.

The incoming Sky deal will see a 50 per cent increase in revenue for the Pro12 teams, but it fails in comparison to the French TV deal which comes in at €73 million a year. BT are offering €46 million per annum for the Aviva Premiership rights.

The French Rugby Federation even granted €2 million loyalty payment to each top-flight club as a sweetener for agreeing to the new European format. Little wonder their protestations died down rather quickly.

John Langford, Jim Williams, Doug Howlett and Shaun Payne were among a number foreign players who were instrumental in Irish provincial success since the game turned professional, but attracting such a high calibre of player in the current market will be a bigger challenge than anything faced on the pitch itself.

Rob Penney didn’t even avail of the full allocation for foreign signings this season, a monetary rather than rugby decision one suspects.

For those reasons alone it’s easy to understand why the IRFU have begun discussing the possibilities of outside investment.

Like him or loathe him, and the latter appears to be the more widely held opinion, Mourad Boudjellal is the perfect example of a success-craving sugardaddy.

A born-and-bred Toulonnais who made his fortune in the comic strip business took over as president when the once-proud club was floundering both on and off the field. By the time Munster celebrated finally lifting the Heineken Cup in 2006, the Red and Black were returning to the second tier of French rugby.

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Mourad Boudjellal, owner of RC Toulon, has invested big money in the rugby team

The bullish tycoon enticed big-name players in the twilight of their careers to get Toulon dining at the top table of French rugby. Among the raft of international stars, Tana Umaga reportedly pocketed more than €300,000 during his playing stint which lasted only seven games.

The bank-rolled club will only be getting stronger as the rich clearly get richer. The problem for Munster and company is that there are more Boudjellals out there financing rival clubs, or in the case of Saracens, an investment group.

“I wonder when the tournament officially dies on May 24th will the romanticism of it all go to the grave as well,” Alan Quinlan questioned following the defeat at the Stade Vélodrome.

After 138 games in the competition – only matched by Toulouse – and some of the most memorable games ever produced, the former Munster flanker is right to question the emotional pull of a competition that is now becoming a huge business.

Munster have thrived on the underdogs tag and make it their business to overcome the odds, but those odds are getting longer by the day.

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