Sunday 8 December 2019

George Hook: Anthony Foley seems like a coach hamstrung by a very average bunch of players

Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne is left battered and bruised in Paris. Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne is left battered and bruised in Paris. Photo: Ramsey Cardy

George Hook

Only those of a stone-hearted disposition could fail to feel sympathy for the Munster head coach on Saturday evening. Anthony Foley's eyes betrayed an obvious pain as he stuttered through his post-match interview.

No words can adequately explain the Munster performance against Stade Francais reserves and for 40 minutes against 14 men. It ranks as Munster's worst ever European outing. Conor Murray's meaningless try at the death was a score that they scarcely deserved.

Where do Munster go from here? It is obvious that Foley himself has no idea. Suggestions like "digging deep" and "looking hard within ourselves" are but empty lines from a coach that seems hamstrung by a very average bunch of players.

And therein lies the reality for Munster in 2016. The head coach will ultimately pay a heavy price for a string of poor performances, culminating in two successive seasons of European failure, but when the personnel tasked with continuing a successful legacy are not up to the job, the blame must spread across the entire Munster organisation.

In the history of rugby union there has never been a successful team with a sub-standard number 10. Since his very first season Ian Keatley has demonstrated an inability to restart, kick from hand or tee and control a game.


On Saturday those failings were in stark focus and had he kicked his goals when Munster were hanging on, the result might not have been different but he could have lifted the team's morale.

The descent to this low point has been a few seasons in the making. It has been predicated on poor recruitment based on a poor assessment of the requirements for success. The preference for Keatley over JJ Hanrahan was clearly Foley's call and he must stand indicted for that, but the failure to pinpoint midfield creativity as a component for success was disastrous.

Munster have not won European silverware in over seven years. Attendances at Thomond Park have been in decline with the inevitable result that less money is available for buying quality players in a market where France and England are inflating salaries.

There are players in the current Munster squad that have walked into a European super brand with no understanding of what it took to get there. And they seem to have little or no concept of what it will take to restore Munster to its former glory.

Recent history might point to a solution, because the current system is clearly not fit for purpose. The scrap and fight that has always been Munster's proud tradition was carved in the back streets of Limerick and Cork, where tough men learned their trade in the famous club grounds of Dooradoyle, Tom Clifford Park, Musgrave Park and Temple Hill.

Club rugby in Munster provided the bedrock of the successful squads of 2006 and 2008, with the likes of Ronan O'Gara, Paul O'Connell, Alan Quinlan, Denis Leamy and Foley all honing their craft in the rough and tumble world of the All Ireland League. In a physical game like rugby union, there is no substitute for a brutal apprenticeship.

Today's players are all seasoned gym monkeys with no tough under-layer to support their bulging biceps.

The academy system is fostering an artificial atmosphere for young players who never really get to understand the physical demands of the game until they make it through to the senior ranks. By then, for most of them, it is already too late.

If the IRFU continue to treat the provinces like a feeder-system for the national side, it won't be long before the professional game in this country dies off altogether. Rugby supporters need the provinces to be successful and challenging for European honours.

The national team plays only a handful of home fixtures each year, so betting the entire budget on its success in a Six Nations Championship would be foolish in the extreme.

Professional rugby in Ireland cannot sustain itself on the national side alone.

For Munster, the immediate future looks incredibly bleak. Regardless of whether Foley follows through with his third-year contract extension, it seems certain that he will not be in the role beyond next season. What then?

Is there a future out there for a coach with a litany of failures on his CV? It seems extremely harsh that a young career could be over before it even gets going, but Foley will have understood the risks when he accepted the position.

In the meantime, maybe some quiet reflection by the powers that be in the Munster branch is required. Right now, the glory days of the last decade seem like a long time ago and there is no quick-fix solution.

Sometimes the route to a brighter future has its secrets buried in the past. In this case, I feel Munster need to look back in order to go forward.

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