Red storm rising
Published 04/11/2011 | 05:00
THE adjectives tell the story. Gnarled, grizzly, gruesome -- words readily associated with Munster over the years, a province whose image has always revolved around a hard core of 'been-there, done-that' merchants taking no prisoners in pursuit of victory.
At the moment, those roles are filled by the likes of Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan, Denis Leamy and Ronan O'Gara, men who inherited the mantle from players like Mick Galwey, John Langford, Jim Williams and Peter Clohessy a decade ago.
But this is a phenomenon that pre-dates professionalism, from Terry Kingston and Ger Earls through Moss Keane, Colm Tucker, Donal Lenihan and back to the eras of Jerry Walsh and Tom Clifford.
Those entrenched perceptions are hard to shake, but there is a fresh energy around the Munster camp these days, founded on a clutch of youngsters who are not merely content to draw a wage and make the Munster squad but are driven by the desire to make their own names -- even if that means forcing iconic Munster players out of the picture.
Munster coaches in the professional era will always be judged on their Heineken Cup exploits. Alan Gaffney did good work between 2002 and 2005 but could not lead Munster to European glory and that is something that has also eluded Tony McGahan in his three seasons at the helm.
However, even though last season brought the ignominy of a Heineken Cup pool exit for the first time since the late 1990s, McGahan's developing of younger players meant 2010/11 was still a productive campaign -- for Munster and Irish rugby -- with an excellent Celtic League triumph providing fitting validation.
There has been a lot of talk of Munster falling behind in the underage game and there are, undoubtedly, issues to be resolved when it comes to forging a successful relationship with the schools. However, the emergence of youngsters such as Conor Murray, Mike Sherry, Peter O'Mahony and Danny Barnes is testament to a progressive policy under McGahan and (while adopting a Declan Kidney-style reluctance to accept personal plaudits) the Australian is encouraged by the progress being made on the regeneration front.
"It is gratifying," concedes McGahan. "With any coach in any environment, in any sport, you are there to teach. And there is a group of young players who are not just coming in to be part of the squad but are coming in with an expectation to play and an expectation to be successful and win.
"That's a really important process and one that needs to be handled carefully, to decide when to give them an opportunity, which they may take and go on to be successful."
Opportunities abounded when Munster's Ireland players were away on World Cup duty and McGahan admits it was hard leaving out the likes of Barnes and O'Mahony for tonight's encounter.
"Learning how to deal with disappointment is part of it," says McGahan. "And there are different factors to consider, whether it's experience or performance, as well as the make-up of the group, who you are playing, the style you want to play and the style the opposition is going to play.
"Like all strong clubs, whether it's Manchester United or whoever, if you want come in and take a spot off an established player, you are going to have to have a real point of difference there and make sure you are outperforming them."
One of the new breed who does start tonight is scrum-half Murray, a player who, like Keith Earls before him, has flourished under McGahan since being given his opportunity last season. The Munster coach was delighted, but not surprised, by Murray's success at the World Cup, and pays tribute to the time put in at club level with the scrum-half and to the player's own attitude and work ethic.
"Conor was tremendous at the World Cup but you need to look at his club stuff, through Garryowen. Conor has been training with us for a while but I think Greg Oliver's role has been really significant. More importantly, there is Conor himself, his own personality and his own drive.
"It's a bit of maturity, a bit of reality, it's about being humble, not thinking you know it all and having a really strong work ethic and a real desire to seek improvement. Those qualities sum up Conor."
Bringing through the next generation is a constant, fluid process for McGahan, but he admits it is easier in some positions than others, citing the example of Ian Nagle -- Man of the Match in the second-row against Australia last year, courted by Northampton, but short on game time since.
"Lock is one position where we are extremely fortunate. We have Donncha and Paul who have been stalwarts of the national side for a long period of time, we have Mick O'Driscoll, a superb player, and Donnacha Ryan making a big impact at domestic and national levels.
"Then you have the likes of Ian and Dave Foley pushing through, who in other clubs would be close to starting. Two tremendous young players who we believe have got a huge future and you don't know what possibilities can open up -- you saw Conor and Mike Sherry push their way through this year.
"But what a wonderful way to learn your craft off so many good players and to be ready so that when the opportunity does come, you nail it down."
The youth factor is one reason why McGahan believes Ireland can take a lot of encouragement from their World Cup performance, claiming that the talent is coming through at the right rate of development for England 2015.
"Irish rugby can take a lot of heart from the World Cup -- beating Australia in the southern hemisphere, topping the group for the first time. It's not often you get to split the Tri-Nations sides down the middle and have them all on one side. That was a wonderful pathway to have and that is why all the players are saying that it was a wasted opportunity.
"But the quality of the (Ireland) squad that is being developed and the quality of young player on show in the provinces is massive, and it is about creating those timelines to engage with that. You look at that Australian side and maybe they were a bit too early in some respects with regards to maturity and how they play the game at different points. It is about getting the process right."
Something McGahan is doing successfully at Munster as is Joe Schmidt at Leinster. The cream of Irish rugby talent will run out tonight in Lansdowne Road but, in the long term, it is the respective benches containing names like Hagan, Ruddock, Madigan, O'Malley, O'Mahony and Barnes pointing the way forward.