Friday 9 December 2016

The trouble with Munster

Brendan Fanning asks why, through the good years, Munster never stood back and took a long, hard look at themselves

Published 23/01/2011 | 05:00

Paul O'Connell appeals to referee Dave Pearson during last week's defeat to Toulon. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul O'Connell appeals to referee Dave Pearson during last week's defeat to Toulon. Photo: Sportsfile

The GAA Championships of 2002 signalled the start of a new era for that organisation. The new Hogan Stand had opened for business just as Dublin reemerged from the shadows.

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Right on cue they won their first Leinster title in seven years and went on to sell out the stadium in the All-Ireland series with two games against Donegal followed by the semi-final with Armagh. The hurling qualifiers had also started that year -- more grist to the mill. And to cap it off, the GAA got its biggest crowd to the International Rules series with Australia. Happy days.

Earlier that year, the Strategic Review Committee had recommended fundamental changes to the way the Association was run. They were largely thrown out by Congress on the basis that what ain't broke don't need fixing.

"When I come across that attitude I go back to the combination of practical and academic -- I worked in both areas -- in my business background," said then president Peter Quinn in an interview with The Irish Times. "That taught me that most organisational problems occur when an organisation appears to be doing well."

We thought of that line last week when the eulogies were being written about Munster. People were falling over themselves to either thank them for the memories or criticise them for not going out with a flourish against Toulon. What we haven't read much about is how an organisation at the forefront of Irish sport fell in love with their own success to the point of arrogance.

Losing last weekend in the south of France wasn't such a remarkable event in the circumstances. What is, however, is that when times were good, Munster did so little to prepare for when they would be bad. They got lazy. They had a fantastic corps of players, well coached, and year on year they gathered more experience and became harder to beat. The better they got the less they thought about inviting someone in to suggest ways of doing things differently.

This arrogance has been at the root of Munster's malaise. For much of the last decade they had only to look across their north-eastern border to feel better about themselves. More than that, for Munster fans Leinster was an organisation to be ridiculed. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and it's wedged so far up Munster's back passage as to be crippling.

A week ago, in conversation with a former Munster player about why their game wasn't delivering the way they wanted, he suggested that the problem was not the quality of ball they were getting, its speed or where it was delivered, rather they had a bigger issue. "Munster's problem is Leinster," he said. More accurately, Munster's predicament has been highlighted by Leinster's success.

On any criterion you choose, Leinster either match or outscore their rivals. At the base level, they make friends and influence more people than you would imagine in the way they accommodate mini rugby at half-time in their home games. At the top end, they think about ways to promote their brand, whether it is through access to media or the charity work of their players. In short, a professional operation at work. Munster have problems all over the place.

DISCIPLINE

This has been building steadily. It did not reach its crescendo with Ronan O'Gara's sin-binning (their 11th card over nine games straight), but with Donncha O'Callaghan's obstruction on Rudi Wolf. Having minded the shop so well when Paul O'Connell was away, this was like setting fire to it as soon as he got back. Absolute madness.

The O'Gara incident needs to be put into context however. Once it started, two incidents sprang up from the past: first was little Lion Robert Jones -- Jack Russell-like -- hopping on Nick Farr-Jones in the Second Test of the series with Australia in 1989; and the second, coincidentally, was another clip from a Lions series, the more recent assault where in 2001 O'Gara was the victim of Duncan McRae.

We suspect that the latter presented itself to O'Gara the second Pierre Mignoni took the hump at being cleared out of a ruck, and did a fair impression of a crazed koala when attaching himself to Munster's outhalf. Having once been a victim in this sort of situation, O'Gara wasn't going to let it happen again. His response in the circumstances was restrained. You felt for him getting the card, and the conversation between touch judge Sean Davey -- we won't call him assistant referee because he was of no assistance -- and referee Dave Pearson was like listening to a tourist getting directions from the village idiot.

That put the tin hat on it for Munster. That's what opened the door to comment that not only were they over the hill, but they couldn't come down the other side without losing their dignity. In fact, it was entirely apt: when it's over after such an incredible journey it really is over, and human nature dictates that you lose control.

The truth is that Munster did nowhere near enough to maintain control when they were in the driving seat. Gradually their standards went through the floor.

COACHING

The job of any coach is to prepare the players he has in front of him and pave the way for the next batch on the way through. When Tony McGahan arrived in Munster as a defence coach mid-way through their 2005/'06 European campaign, he immediately made an impression in an area that needed attention. Quickly his input extended to what Munster should be doing with the ball as well as without it. And when he succeeded Declan Kidney after that second win, that too went down very well with the players.

By then Kidney had poked around their grey matter and explored the parts other coaches can't easily reach. It was time for technical stuff, minute detail on how the game should be played on the pitch. And man could McGahan do detail.

When you see him in those flash interviews on tv, before or immediately after games, or at the top table at press conferences, you imagine someone has just put a coin in the slot and pressed the bland button. Sometimes you long for the interviewer to ask him to give it another shot, but for real this time.

Privately, he is an altogether different creature. Animated without overdosing on passion, when he talks rugby you have to run to keep up. There is a school of thought in Munster that they need an antidote to McGahan's approach. He focuses exclusively on the accuracy of the execution, and loses the head when it doesn't happen. The line is that the players need something of the inspiration that Kidney used to produce, something to balance the detail.

There is some jockeying for position now. Constantly Anthony Foley's name crops up as a replacement for Laurie Fisher. Foley was never the quickest over 10 yards but he always knew the shortest route from A to B. His playing pedigree is awesome but McGahan was the man who appointed Fisher. He can't cut his friend loose without suffering himself.

DEVELOPMENT

Two seasons ago in these pages McGahan conceded that the Munster Academy was about two years behind Leinster. To recap: Leinster were first out of the blocks when the academies went provincial and put a lot of work into getting their one right, from its rugby content to its Hetac link to its creative mechanism to attract tax-free funding. They produced a comprehensive handbook covering the A-Z of how it would work. Munster photocopied the handbook. The idea of having a system that works is that you mitigate against the inevitable downturns in the cycle. Munster's system may be functional now but it hasn't been operating long enough at a high enough standard to give them what they need. This goes back to Declan Kidney's days as head coach. It is a situation McGahan inherited.

Even so, their throughput of players has been weak. The Australia game in November -- the last time Munster got through 80 minutes without a gift card from a referee -- has been hailed as the new dawn of Munster rugby. For the second time in three seasons the home team had exposed bit players to the intensity of Southern Hemisphere touring teams and come through with flying colours.

In fact, the exercise against the Wallabies was much riskier than the All Blacks match for three months ago the entire bench, aside from the rehabbed Barry Murphy, was made up of what Alan Hansen would class as 'kids'. Three of those kids -- prop Stephen Archer, open side Tommy O'Donnell and scrumhalf Conor Murray -- have yet to be trusted with starting a Magners League game. The only reason they were there that night was because injuries and international calls had put Tony McGahan to the pin of his collar. Don't believe for a moment that there is a flood of young talent about to wash through the system. There isn't.

MANAGEMENT

To get a glimpse into how Munster are managed, check out the Christmas party which ended with Dougie Howlett getting his collar felt by the law and the details of it appearing in the national media. This was just after Paul O'Connell had been sent off. Ask yourself how a situation like that was allowed to develop; how people with experience were there and let it get out of hand; how it was then managed once it became the clear there was a public relations device to be defused.

We tried to ask team manager Shaun Payne what went on but he still hasn't come back to us. In fact, we have never had a conversation of any description with the Munster manager -- or rather not since he went overnight from playing to managing. Is it the price of the returned phone call that's the issue?

Unlike Leinster, they have a lot of people milling about the team and it's not clear exactly what they all do. Excluding the kit man and the pr man and the operations man, we make it 16 people hovering around the senior and A squads. Maybe this is because they're a very hard bunch of fellas to manage. Maybe it's because they have to straddle the great divide between Cork and Limerick. Maybe if Munster opt for outside assessment it might throw up clearer job descriptions and better results.

FACILITIES

There is a rugby management office in UL in Limerick where Tony McGahan is based and then another one in CIT in Cork where Laurie Fisher has his desk. And of course there are administrative offices in both cities. A fair amount of rental being paid there, you'd say.

Naturally enough, there are two stadiums as well. Maybe we should qualify that: Limerick has Thomond Park which at 26,000 in effect is the biggest house in the European neighbourhood (Cardiff has 800 more seats but it has never been full, and Murrayfield is a ghost town). When you drive in the back road from Parteen on a dark evening and sweep around the bend to see the stadium floodlit in the distance, it is a genuinely impressive sight.

If that dark evening is attended by wind and rain, however, you forget about the appealing vista. Open at both ends, if you are in the first circa 15 rows of either stand, you'd need oilskins with you. It may be nice to look at but it wasn't designed for creature comfort, never mind those who work there.

The match-day experience is dismal. If you're not satisfied with having your eardrums burst by the loudest PA in the northern hemisphere, featuring a loop with the 'Fields' and the 'Fight' then you're out of luck.

And of course Cork has Musgrave Park. We have lost track of the time that has passed since that kip was going to be redeveloped. You wonder how professional an organisation can be when it does business in a place like that. Munster still owe €10-11m to the IRFU on Thomond Park, so something will have to happen with that before something good happens with Musgrave. In the meantime, abandon it.

FUTURE

Start with getting in an outside agency to look at the Munster machine from top to bottom. It will take a while and it will cost a few bob but to continue doing nothing would be more expensive. This should have started when they touched down in Shannon with the Heineken Cup in May 2006.

On the field they will not fall off the face of the earth but they should be delighted that ERC moved last season to tart up the Challenge Cup just as Amlin came on board with their cheque book. For a quarter-final in that competition the away team gets 35 per cent of the gate; for a semi-final the proceeds are split evenly. Win it outright and you trouser €300k. It may not be as sexy as the Heineken but at those prices you can learn to love it. For the next few seasons Munster will start Europe looking at two options instead of one.

Closer to home, they are still headed towards a home draw and a full house in the Magners League. Celtic Rugby for some reason are unable to give an accurate breakdown of the receipts, but it is something like a three-way split between the organiser and the two clubs involved. And of course the home team get to make money from the ancillaries on the day.

What to do with that cash if it comes along? Buy a new tight-head and a new inside centre, we hear their fans say. We suggest they invest first in looking in a mirror. Incidentally, Leinster, from a position of some strength, are already embarked with an outside agency on a review of where they are going and how they might get there.

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