'Roots' factor can put munster back on track
Munster's response to their Toulon nightmare has been extremely impressive, and while beating Leinster tomorrow and reasserting dominance in this fixture would constitute another significant step, it is not the be-all and end-all.
Losing to Leinster for the sixth time in succession would undoubtedly sting, but, given where both sides are coming from, the result is less important than ensuring Munster are on the right path -- as they seem to be.
Not making the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup for the first time in 13 years was a ball-breaker and it would have been easy for the morale-sapped Munster men to collapse in the second half of the season.
Instead, they have put together an impressive string of results, starting with that bonus-point win over London Irish the week after Toulon and comprising a string of laudable league performances that made light of the fact that a clutch of their main men were away on Ireland duty.
It has been heartening to see the contribution of the younger brigade and players such as Conor Murray, Mike Sherry, Ian Nagle and Peter O'Mahony look to be made of the right stuff.
There was also sensible recognition of the need for a scrummaging tight-head. If Munster could have locked their scrum in the Liberty Stadium last December, they would still be in the Heineken Cup and BJ Botha has been brought in next season to do precisely that.
While it would be better all-round if there were an Irish-qualified tight-head to call on, Munster do not have the time to unearth that scarce commodity and the Springbok No 3 will allow local talent to flourish around him.
That is encouraging for the future, as is the appointment of Anthony Foley as forwards coach. Laurie Fisher came across as intelligent and articulate in his views on how the game should be played, but forward play is founded in the set-pieces (an area where Australian rugby has struggled in recent times) and the Munster scrum and line-out went through its rough patches under Fisher.
The fear with Foley was that he was too close to the players having only retired a few seasons ago and that the poacher-turned-gamekeeper role would prove tricky too handle.
However, the Shannon man has flourished since being brought into the equation -- as emphasised by his successful elevation to the Ireland 'A' (Wolfhounds) coaching ticket this season.
Aside from his coaching abilities, a significant element in Foley's integration is that he is steeped in the province -- from his St Munchin's College days through Shannon and the Munster senior team, carrying on the proud legacy of his father, Brendan. The 'roots' factor is something Irish rugby has lost sight of in the professional era, but dates back to the amateur days when the southern hemisphere was placed on a pedestal.
The upshot is an inherent snobbery towards the All-Ireland League, which is not seen as an adequate breeding ground for professional coaches. Brian Walsh and David O'Mahony are two Munster-reared coaches with a wealth of experience behind them. Their Munster playing days may have been back when the bandwagon was being constructed and had yet to begin rolling, but that does not mean they are out of touch.
O'Mahony was instrumental in bringing through the likes of Tomas O'Leary and James Coughlan, while Walsh has worked successfully with many of the young players who have graduated to Munster through Cork Constitution.
There is a lot of 'scientific' poppycock attached to modern coaching, but, in the critical areas, rugby is still rugby and the likes of Walsh and O'Mahony deserve to be considered for roles within a provincial set-up they know as well as anyone.
The Munster Academy has been compared unfavourably to its Leinster and Ulster equivalents in recent times and is an area that needs to be addressed. Alan Quinlan will soon call time on a long and fruitful professional playing career and would appear to be one candidate ideally suited to oversee the next generation.
Money could be freed up by off-loading an overseas player, which would also allow 'parish' players to be brought in.
True achievement is judged by how you respond to adversity. Munster have had a self-defeating tendency to revert to an 'us against the world' attitude when things have gone wrong in the past, reacting spikily to perceived criticism and closing ranks in the wake of disappointment.
There has been none of that this time around -- no attempt to hide from the truth, rather a commendable willingness to put things right. That needs to continue, on and off the field, and while Munster set about furthering that process, they need to remember an old adage.
Strength comes from within.