Saturday 18 November 2017

Calm heads to silence crisis talk

David Kelly

David Kelly

Not the end of an era, more the end of an aura. The rush to fill Thomond Park has been reduced to a diffident shuffle.

The club's CEO insists that the coaches will not be axed but with only a year left on their contracts, the back-slapping endorsement feels strangely limp-wristed, particularly with a slew of top-ranked coaches spilling on to the market after this autumn's World Cup.

And now from their hated foes, the Ospreys, we hear Tommy Bowe musing mischievously whether the Limerick faithful will barrack their heroes if events conspire against them.

All is, indeed, changed utterly.

"We'll be hoping to keep them quiet from the start," Bowe says of the Munster supporters. "They've a super fan base in Munster.

"They come out in their red and really get behind the team and act as a bit of a 16th man for them. But it's up to us to try to silence the crowd and hopefully turn them on their own players."

With even an Irishman reckoning that the constituents are primed for revolt, such talk of a crisis calls for calm heads. Or, at the very least, a calm head to call a halt to talk of a crisis.

"Munster are not in crisis," rebuts Damien Varley, echoing a strident riposte admittedly first heard in these parts towards the middle of the last decade, such are the lofty expectations of one of world rugby's leading club sides.

"It is not an ageing team. We have some excellent players; we have used 52 players out of the entire squad for the Magners League this year. There are excellent players coming up through the ranks.

"We have had a few bad days and days where players haven't been focused, but Munster are not in crisis and we hope to go on and prove that in the next few week. The loss to Harlequins was very upsetting for us.

"Equally, I can imagine, it is extremely hurtful for supporters, especially in this economic climate, to be forking out money and witnessing a day when we never showed up. Our focus is to win in the next few weeks. The Munster supporters are extremely loyal, very supportive and I think that they will be coming back."

And what will they see? Few can say with certainty. If Munster's dips have appeared mysterious to the outsider this term, the really worrying factor has been the quizzical response from those within the squad.

Munster can rightly boast of their stellar Magners League record -- only three losses in the regular campaign -- but this has just served to starkly underline the desperately disappointing European failures.

Were Munster to be turned over today, that would represent a fifth semi-final loss on McGahan's watch, rendering redundant any hope of extending his contract beyond 2012.

Win and McGahan can guarantee his CEO and the sponsors another money-spinning day out at Thomond, with every chance of a sell-out for what would be an inter-provincial Magners final.


The stakes are that high and McGahan has rolled his dice in a number of areas of team selection, most notably at scrum-half where he has caused a major stir by jettisoning Ireland's first-choice No 9, Tomas O'Leary. O'Leary wasn't required to rest by Ireland coach Declan Kidney; this is purely the coach's call.

The cull doesn't end there. Having earlier in the week mysteriously axed Alan Quinlan -- the Ospreys' self-confessed most feared opponent -- McGahan has also dumped one of his captains, Denis Leamy.

Clearly, the under-fire Australian wasn't best pleased by Leamy's intemperate reactions against Connacht last week; Donnacha Ryan takes his place at blindside flanker as he seeks to win his race with Kevin McLaughlin for a World Cup berth.

The coach has also clearly given up on Sale-bound Tony Buckley or perhaps, given his experiences against Ospreys this season, he wishes to save the fitful tight-head another embarrassing shellacking.

With the old guard of John Hayes and Marcus Horan in tow, the front-row has a familiar, if not particularly menacing look about it; Hayes will, at least, aid the service from a line-out that has eerily resembled the rest of the side's uncertainty.

In the midfield, Munster's eclectic partnerships have mirrored the lack of direction within the side; the latest dizzying alteration sees Danny Barnes move outside Lifeimi Mafi.

Munster's back three looks incredibly strong; their problem has been that the ball reaches them at a glacial place; expect their best attacks to form should Ospreys once again deploy kicking tactics on Irish soil.

For their part, the Welsh side may be reigning champions but, like the hosts, this fails to gloss over deep-running concerns about the direction of an admittedly artificial franchise compared to the historical Munster lineage.

Lee Byrne, Mike Phillips and James Hook are a trio of galacticos/egos who are soon to depart to France; only Hook will play today, while Japan-bound Jerry Collins -- whose dumb yellow card allowed Munster thieve a win in Swansea last month -- is benched.

The remarkable Shane Williams (knee) is out and otherwise, the Ospreys have made two personnel and two positional changes. Huw Bennett and Ian Gough return up front, Ryan Jones moves to the back-row and Justin Tipuric switches flanks.

Like Munster, they are undergoing transition. They will seek to replicate the scrum dominance that ultimately did for Munster's Heineken Cup hopes last December; for those who forgot, they performed an encore in that recent league game.

Familiarity breeds contempt, not respect, with these two sides viz Paul O'Connell's red card, the Phillips-Ronan O'Gara skirmish and Ospreys' gamesmanship. And that's only since December!

"The Ospreys seem to have a relationship with all clubs," said McGahan wryly. "I don't think we're any different there. When players play against each other a lot, both domestically and internationally -- they have been on Lions tours together -- there is bound to be some friction.

"You have competitive individuals facing up against each other. The Ospreys do what they do, and we'll do what we do."

What Munster need to do is win. Desperation and wounded pride, much more than the prohibitive odds, suggest they must. The consequences of defeat are unthinkable.

Verdict: Munster

Munster -- F Jones; D Howlett, D Barnes, L Mafi; K Earls, R O'Gara, C Murray; M Horan, D Varley, J Hayes; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt); D Ryan, D Wallace, J Coughlan. Reps: M Sherry, W du Preez, S Archer, D Leamy, N Ronan, P Stringer, P Warwick, S Zebo.

Ospreys -- R Fussell; T Bowe, A Bishop, J Hook, N Walker; D Biggar, R Webb; P James, H Bennett, A Jones; I Gough, AW Jones (capt); R Jones, J Tipuric, J Thomas. Reps: R Hibbard, R Bevington, C Griffiths, J Collins, T Smith, M Holah, T Isaacs, A Beck.

Ref -- N Owens (WRU)

Munster v Ospreys

Live, RTE 2, 6.0

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