Sunday 17 December 2017

Hugh Farrelly: It's the wrong time for Munster to make a change

Munster head coach Tony McGahan has decided to return to Australia to be part of Robbie Deans' national management team
Munster head coach Tony McGahan has decided to return to Australia to be part of Robbie Deans' national management team

Hugh Farrelly

LAST year, following Munster's exit from the Heineken Cup pool stages for the first time in 13 seasons, the province felt obliged to issue the dreaded vote of confidence to coach Tony McGahan.

In the middle of his third season at the helm, it looked as though, rather than emulating the double Heineken Cup-winning achievements of his predecessor Declan Kidney, Munster were going backwards under McGahan, with that pool exit, following a torrid trouncing in Toulon, providing tangible evidence.

The supporters were disgruntled, the pundits dismissive -- and the situation was compounded by the fact that the province's great rivals Leinster appeared to have moved to a different level, kicking on from their 2009 European triumph by scorching their way to a second title playing exhilarating rugby under new coach Joe Schmidt.

McGahan had another year to go on his contract and Munster stood by their man -- with spectacular results -- but, now, just as the plaudits were raining down upon the Australian, he has decided to go home, leaving various questions to address.

Is this is a good time for change?

Not at all. McGahan has been going from strength-to-strength. He restored core values by bringing in forwards coach Anthony Foley for the ill-fitting Laurie Fisher as well as a specialist scrum coach in Paul McCarthy and tight-head enforcer BJ Botha for Tony Buckley.

He bounced back from the Toulon disappointment by engineering an excellent Magners League triumph last season and then a six-from-six pool qualification in this season's Heineken Cup. McGahan has kept Munster well in the Pro12 mix also -- and all this despite a consistently depowering injury list.

All the while, he has been bringing through a clutch of youngsters to strengthen Ireland's talent pool -- Conor Murray, Peter O'Mahony and Simon Zebo chief among them -- while embracing a more attacking style.

With Munster going through a self-acknowledged period of transition, McGahan has been handling the process superbly -- and continuity, not change, was the key.

Did Munster want to keep him?

Very much so. McGahan was given the option of a two-year extension as the province sought to build on the momentum of the last 12 months.

So why go now?

McGahan was widely expected to accept the contract on offer, but there are a number of reasons why he changed his mind. Chief among them would surely have been a serious opportunity coming up in Australia.

While the Wallabies are yet to confirm their new coaching ticket under Robbie Deans, McGahan is expected to be part of it and for a man who still has a relatively low profile in his own country, that is a big appointment.

Another significant factor is the desire to bring up his family in Australia after a seven-year sojourn in Ireland.

The fact that Munster continue to operate on a two-base system could also have been a source of frustration for the coach. Munster's Cork-Limerick quirk is something that has always baffled southern hemisphere imports (McGahan's countryman Jim Williams raised serious questions about the practice and called for a single base after the defeat to Wasps in 2004) and goes against accepted operations in the professional game.

Who should replace him?

Whoever comes in must be equipped to continue the progression achieved under McGahan in the past year.

It took the Australian three years to properly get to grips with the particular nuances of steering the Munster juggernaut and bringing in another southern hemisphere coach to start from scratch represents something of a risk.

Going local has powerful appeal. Foley was being groomed for the role down the line and understands how it works. The general assumption is that it would be too much too soon for the 2006 Heineken cup-winning captain, but who is to say he is not up to the task?

There are other indigenous coaching candidates to choose from and, while former Munster winger and Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan would have his detractors in the province, he is available and highly qualified.

What about the rest of the coaching ticket?

It depends on who comes in and where their specialist skills lie, but there is talk of Doug Howlett, out for the season with injury, taking on a coaching role when his playing days are over.

The All Black has been a phenomenal success since joining Munster in 2007 and commands massive respect in the squad and among supporters.

How will this affect Munster?

No more than Ulster, who are parting ways with their head coach Brian McLaughlin at the end of a season where the side has made significant progress, it is essential that Munster's season does not go off the rails now (a situation complicated by the fact the two Irish provinces face each other in the Heineken Cup quarter-final).

However, McGahan has built up considerable levels of loyalty and regard among his players and you would expect them to do their utmost to give him a fitting send-off.

The danger next season is that the acclimatisation process under the new man will slow down the momentum McGahan has built up so impressively.

Irish Independent

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