Tuesday 16 January 2018

Get up off your knees and play

Munster need to stop apologising for who they can no longer be

Peter O’Mahony, left, and Paul O’Connell lead Munster’s vanquished troops off the pitch after losing to Saracens last weekend. The Red Army need to realise they no longer are the force they once were.
Peter O’Mahony, left, and Paul O’Connell lead Munster’s vanquished troops off the pitch after losing to Saracens last weekend. The Red Army need to realise they no longer are the force they once were.
Martin Odegaard from Norway holds his new Real Madrid shirt during a press conference at Real Madrid's Valdebebas training grounds. Odegaard aged 16 will play for Real's second team Real Madrid Castilla and had been linked with many of Europe's top clubs.
'McGregor makes such a point of accentuating his Irishness, it’s disappointing when it comes entangled in the foul language and cartoon braggadocio that so flavoured his press conference after the Denis Siver fight'
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Right then, should Munster even bother with Sale Sharks tomorrow or just circle some chairs on the field and hand around a microphone?

Their remorse this week came plumbed to the kind of disappointment that cauterises all areas of a brain dealing in logic. It wasn't enough to acknowledge the performance against Saracens as simply poor. The company line declared it unforgivable.

It was, it seemed, an affront to the essential hardness of Munster rugby then. A betrayal of place or, as Peter O'Mahony put it, of families even.

The media joined in, depicting them as teetering on the brink of an abyss into which a faller would never again be seen. It's a wonder food parcels didn't begin piling up overnight on Killeely Road.

VANITY

So deep breaths now, hold the heads.

Yes, the landscape of European rugby is changing and, yes, right now it is becoming a complete basket case.

The private owners of French clubs especially have turned it into a vanity show that, frankly, removes even the pretence of a sound commercial grounding to what it is they do.

For the moment, Munster's debt on Thomond Park shadows every player-contract and team-sheet. They're torn between being competitive and staying solvent.

That means playing a different game to anything bankrolled by the likes of Jacky Lorenzetti and Mourad Boudjellal.

It's why JJ Hanrahan wasn't made an offer that he couldn't refuse. Talented as the kid is, how could they throw out big bucks essentially for a back-up number ten?

So Anthony Foley's in a kind of war zone here and the bad news is it won't be getting any better soon.

The tail is wagging the dog in French and English rugby, the Unions subservient to the clubs. So for the foreseeable future, the Champions Cup will be an Anglo-French game of monopoly.

Sure Leinster have made the play-offs, but does anyone truly believe they'll be at Twickenham in May?

There have been calls this week for private investment into the provinces, a copycat approach to what has, arguably, given the likes of Toulon and Clermont stronger playing squads than any Six Nations national team.

In other words, to loosen the shackles under which the professional game is overseen here. But to what end? So that we, too, can step into the casino?

The French national team is already paying the price for a system prioritising club over country, but that won't trigger protest marches in the streets. Club devotion has always been a more compelling force there than loyalty to Les Bleus.

Irish rugby is a different animal.

Brian O'Driscoll was recently asked about falling attendances at the RDS and he reminded the questioner that it wasn't exactly an eternity back that a Leinster crowd would have been closer to 230 than 23,000.

We sometimes forget the essential artificiality of the club game here and how devotion to provincial colours is still such a relatively new phenomenon.

Success fed a natural conceit, though. This will be just the second time in 17 seasons that Munster watch the European play-offs from afar.

When Leinster beat Ulster in the 2012 Heineken Cup final, it was the fifth time in seven seasons the European champions were Irish.

Trouble is, the European game has tilted dramatically away from us now and the interesting thing will be to see what haemorrhaging of support that brings.

Thomond Park is expected to be half-empty tomorrow and, according to some in London last weekend, there were audible grumblings that Munster should never have allowed Rod Penney jump ship to Japan.

TUNGSTEN

Where on earth, the cry went, was the team so famed for winning games they shouldn't through nerves of tungsten?

The answer, of course, is that that team died some time ago. Maybe successive European semi-final appearances obscured the fact but, Paul O'Connell apart, all of the famed old warhorses have slipped into the sunset now.

Those left behind are ill-equipped to pluck the game's richest plums and, when O'Connell departs, their reach is going to be even poorer.

So they need to get up off their knees and stop apologising for being who they are just because it might not meet the popular expectation.

It isn't a crime to lose in sport, not even if that loss involves a level of under-performance that leaves your people vexed. If those people follow you for more than simple entertainment, they'll be in Thomond Park tomorrow.

If not, you'll know the depth of their devotion.

Failure is not an option for Odegaard

So you are Hans Erik Odegaard, settling into that beautiful new Madrid villa when you discover your 16-year-old ordering a pizza delivery after midnight.

What do you do, stop his pocket money?

It isn't unusual in professional football for the parents of young protégés to find employment in the corridors of clubs that covet their offspring. In Hans Erik's case, he will heretofore be a member of Real Madrid's coaching staff then.

For Florentino Perez, this will be one of the least troubling details to stitch into a contract securing the services of, arguably, the most coveted teenager in European football.

If Martin Odegaard performs to the level expected, he may be worth as much as €12 million by the age of 19.

Hans Erik has been to the forefront, not simply of the public auction for Martin's services, but also the purposeful commercialisation of his talent.

So Martin is already an oil well five years before he could even legally drink a beer in America.

The figures are staggering, the presumption huge. They bypass any worries that a 16-year-old, physically, emotionally and psychologically, is only starting out on the path to self-discovery.

So what if Martin struggles under the weight of them? Imagine the onset of manhood diminishes rather than nurtures his love of the game. "It meant incredible pressure," wrote Zlatan Ibrahimovic of signing for Ajax as a teenager.

Zlatan considered himself indestructible, but it turned out he wasn't. Nobody is.

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