Thursday 12 December 2019

Tony Ward: The end of an era...but it might not be a bad thing for Munster

The temptation is to bask in another semi-final victory by an Irish side in the bread-and-butter Pro12.

Leinster did all they had to do to control affairs when overcoming a full-on Glasgow side at the RDS to make it through to yet another final.

It will be their third final in the competition in as many years since the play-offs came into being, but amazingly they have still to achieve outright success under the format.

That said, closer examination of Leinster's competitive record since 2009 reveals a quite extraordinary level of consistency whereby in the six competitions open to them in that time (three Heineken Cups and three Celtic Leagues) they have made it through to five finals, falling short at the penultimate stage of the 2010 Heineken Cup alone.

It reflects an incredible level of professional consistency and is testimony to the progress made under Michael Cheika and, more particularly, Joe Schmidt, who has led the province to four finals from four attempts.

More than that, the style and quality of rugby has been truly exhilarating, mixing forward nous with flair, making for the most potent winning combination. But tempted though we are to reflect on another Irish success, the real story is of Munster's demise in Swansea. It's not the death of a franchise, but it is the end of an era. How could it be otherwise with so many retiring or departing?

Everything in life works in cycles and the trick is to try and prepare for inevitable lean times, most particularly when everything seems so bountiful. Think Liverpool prior to the Premier League and who would have believed the league title famine that was to follow. Liverpool, both on and off the pitch, were the side to which every other ambitious football club aspired. Now, it's the blues of Manchester setting the agenda, but somewhere along the way, they too will have their fall, be it temporary or long-term. It's called life.

What was achieved by Munster in this season's Heineken Cup group stage flattered to deceive. Ronan O'Gara's nerveless match-winning drop goals against Northampton and Castres masked a multitude of worries. On the positive side, it fuelled the confidence for a majestic collective performance at Franklin's Gardens but on the downside, it convinced many that a return to the glory days of 2006 and '08 was but a couple of knock-out games away.

But we are now witnessing a changing of the guard and I genuinely believe it's no bad thing. Mick O'Driscoll means well when he suggests it's not the end of this great era. His premise is based on the number of up-and-coming players brought in to replace not only himself, but other great servants like Alan Quinlan, David Wallace, Jerry Flannery and quite possibly Denis Leamy too, while others such as Marcus Horan and Donncha O'Callaghan are hitting the final straight as well.

But more than that -- unlike in the recent past -- this time the change in head coach is dramatic. Rob Penney represents a new departure, coming as he does with no previous background within the province, within these shores or indeed this hemisphere.

RECONSTRUCTION

Penney's appointment comes at a time when stocks and morale are equally low. For a Munster side to score a brilliant try in the opening minutes of a semi-final for an early seven-point lead and then ship 40 points in a one-sided rout is unprecedented. Penney faces a root-and-branch reconstruction job.

There is some defence for Friday night's demise, given the absence of O'Gara from the starting 15 and the absence of Paul O'Connell from the match-day 23. Both should be central to the new drive and while I expect O'Gara to be on board the Ireland plane to New Zealand, I hope for O'Connell's sake that he is not. Declan Kidney will do all he can to have his forward talisman there, but it would benefit the player -- and Munster -- were he not to be pushing his body towards the point of no return.

A new coach and a re-energised captain would make such a difference to Munster. Against the Ospreys -- with the exception of Peter O'Mahony -- they were bereft of forward presence, while Keith Earls alone looked lively behind the scrum. That one moment of magic in the creation of Ian Keatley's try proved conclusively (by way of his angled inside line) why he must be the first-choice centre under Penney. And may we be spared this nonsense about size -- he's a sturdily built compact three-quarter capable of looking after his patch defensively.

What is demanded of the Munster fans is patience to rebuild. Despite last year's Celtic League success, it's time for major surgery. From Penney's perspective -- and Anthony Foley's too -- the bar of expectation has finally been lowered and that in itself is no bad thing. Success breeds success, but equally it breeds unreal expectation. But far from fearing transition, it must be embraced. The Penney/Foley era cannot commence quickly enough. Bring it on.

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