Where have all the Munster props gone?
With Tony Buckley's departure to Sale and the scrum continuing to plague Munster, the question of front-row production has become a live one down south
IN many ways, Tony Buckley was the great, white hope.
Since he first caught the eye as Shannon's socks-rolled-down, front-row behemoth at the start of the last decade, 'Mushy' was seen as the long-term future for Munster and Ireland rugby, regularly referred to as 'the new John Hayes'.
Ten years on and, despite 88 provincial caps and 21 for his country, the 30-year-old has never conclusively proven his worth at the top level in the one area where prop-forwards are defined -- consistency. There is no questioning Buckley's talent, his performance off the bench against Fiji in 2009 stands unchallenged as the most skilful by an Irish prop in the modern era, while there are other displays that readily come to mind.
You think of him running over Wasps' giant enforcer Simon Shaw in the Heineken Cup a few years ago or his stand-out showing for Ireland against the All Blacks last summer -- when Buckley has his goat up there are few more compelling sights in rugby.
It is no surprise that Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal has described Buckley as "world class," for when his tight game is on par with his loose game, he falls squarely into that category. The problem has been that, when it came to the scrum, it was very much a fingers-crossed scenario when Buckley took to the pitch -- as only seven Heineken Cup starts for Munster testify.
The defining game in Buckley's departure from Munster could well have been the defeat away to the Ospreys in December. If Munster could have locked the scrum that day, they would almost certainly still be in the Heineken Cup as that set-piece was the difference between victory and narrow defeat.
Although this move to the English Premiership has led to knee-jerk speculation that he is no longer part of Ireland's plans, there is no evidence to support this. Declan Kidney and Smal have invested heavily in this player and he still looks odds-on to be part of the World Cup squad in September given his ability to cover both sides of the scrum and impact off the bench.
It is Munster who appear to have backed off Buckley since the Ospreys game, he has not started a match for the province since, and they were understood to be looking for a tight-head even before yesterday's announcement. The easy conclusion was Mike Ross, Buckley's replacement in the Ireland No 3 jersey, returning to his native province, but, although Munster are believed to have been in active pursuit, the chances of Ross moving south were always remote in the extreme.
BJ Botha is a more likely, though by no means guaranteed, capture. The Springbok, out of contract at the end of the season, is at odds with Ulster and, while he has been strongly linked with a return to South Africa and the Lions, he is also believed to be amenable to a move to Munster -- if the cash is right.
An Irish option, and a less expensive one, would be Peter Bracken, currently playing with Carcassone in France's second flight. It has been a case of 'out of sight, out of mind' for the Tullamore man in recent times, but one thing the Heineken Cup-winner can guarantee any side he plays for is solidity on the tight-head side of the scrum -- Munster's consistent Achilles heel.
Peter Borlase was brought over from New Zealand, but has yet to convince while the other tight-head options in the squad, Stephen Archer and Dave Ryan, look short on power and experience against the top props in Europe.
But what about the propping production line in a province that has produced scrummaging heavyweights of the calibre Tom Clifford, Phil O'Callaghan, Ginger McLoughlin and Peter Clohessy? Peter Scott coaches the Senior Cup forwards at PBC Cork, the reigning Munster Schools champions, and believes there are a number of factors behind the faltering supply.
"First of all, in terms of the pool of players at schools and underage levels, Munster cannot compete with Leinster, we have a tiny pool in comparison, we just don't have the resources," said Scott.
"Ireland does not tend to produce big, hefty young-fellahs in the same way as South Africa, France or England, but, even when we do, the way the rules are now, they are not likely to come through in any case. There is an international metre-and-a-half rule from U-19 down which states that you cannot drive more than that distance -- not much more than four feet -- in the scrum.
"So, you get the drive on and, all of a sudden, the ref is shouting 'stop'. I know it is for safety reasons, but it is not in a coach's interest to pick the big, heavy young-fellah ahead of a more mobile, footballing player who could hold it up for a few seconds and we would spend more time working on ball skills in training," he added.
"There was a time when schoolboys would spend hours doing scrum after scrum, Paddy Attridge who used to coach the forwards under Declan Kidney, was famous for it at Pres -- those days are long gone. It means the players coming into the system are not being weaned on the scrum. However, to be fair, I think Paul McCarthy coming in as scrum coach with Munster is a good move and there are efforts to identify and work with promising youngsters to get them ready for the step up ."
That is for the future, the present sees Munster searching for a solution to their scrum problem. As for Buckley -- one of the genuinely nice guys of Irish rugby -- he will be wished well in his move to England and, though his time in red was ultimately unfulfilling, do not discount his World Cup impact in green.