Friday 15 December 2017

McGahan looks to past success as bedrock for Munster future

Tony McGahan is happy to have his World Cup contingent back in action
Tony McGahan is happy to have his World Cup contingent back in action
David Kelly

David Kelly

As a welcome home message, it was typical of the team and the man.

"Ye weren't the first Irish team to disgrace the nation and ye won't be the last," was the text message transported to the Munster contingent of returning World Cup players four years ago.

As an exercise in banishing self-pity and exorcising the ghoulish spirits of Bordeaux, where Ireland's 2007 campaign was seemingly cursed even before it started, Anthony Foley's memo was a characteristically effective clarion call.

The same year had seen Munster cede their proud unbeaten Heineken Cup home record at Thomond Park to Leicester, before tamely yielding their defence of the crown to Llanelli Scarlets in Stradey Park in the quarter-final.

That disappointment merely served to compound Ireland's luckless conclusion to the Six Nations -- despite a try-scoring blitz bathed in Rome sunshine, France had snatched the championship on points difference with a last-minute try against Scotland.

Ireland's wretched World Cup campaign deepened the gloom, prompting fears that success for her greatest ever assembly line of players may have been at an end.

Foley and his then head coach Declan Kidney had other ideas -- stealthily organising matters in the background was a figure whose influence would establish itself incrementally that season.

His name was Tony McGahan.

Many of Munster's key personnel had arrived home as damaged goods -- whether it was Peter Stringer being berated by his captain, Ronan O'Gara being dogged by French media intrusion, Alan Quinlan being ignored by the management or Brian Carney joining everyone else in wondering why the hell he was there instead of Tommy Bowe.

Kidney faced one of his most delicate tasks of man-management. This conundrum suited his subtle skills perfectly.

Despatching both Stringer and O'Gara on a week's holiday before allowing them back into the Munster fold, Kidney drew up a plan of the campaign that would form the basis of an extraordinary rehabilitation of his tainted Irish contingent.

From his pointedly publicised views on his squad rotation, subtly contrasting his style to that of Eddie O'Sullivan, to the remarkable decision to give the captain's armband to Ireland's jilted Stringer ahead of his troubled vice-captain, O'Gara, Kidney pressed all the right buttons.

Seven months later, Munster would become Heineken Cup champions for a second time, a repeat success confirming their status as an established force of the European game.

Four years on, Leinster's own swiftly compiled double European success and an Irish Grand Slam win did much to ensure that this crop of internationals would be remembered as a gilded generation.

Nevertheless, while the 2011 World Cup campaign scarcely mirrored the farce of its predecessor, this autumn was still draped in disappointment, the crushing depth of quarter-final devastation measured by the genuine belief among the squad that destiny seemed to have been beckoning them all the way to the final.

Professional sport will not admit any introspection. Munster and Leinster, as they must, need to channel collective frustrations into their domestic and European campaigns.

"The team you're involved with it at the time is the team you throw everything in with," Munster captain Paul O'Connell says simply.

A heavyweight tussle between the pair in a virtually sold-out Lansdowne Road will do nicely, as both teams prepare to refocus their energies on provincial duty.

McGahan was at pains to praise the IRFU's Player Management Programme this week, but one would be surprised if a blazer at Lansdowne Road HQ didn't pick up the phone to query why he top-loaded his side last week with his international crew.

"With Northampton first up in the Heineken Cup, it's important to reintegrate our players quickly. We're extremely lucky that the players themselves are always extremely keen to get back in. They're always keen to play for Munster," he said.

"Ideally, you would get three or four weeks to reintegrate, but we don't get that option."

Scrum-half Tomas O'Leary remains the chief concern for McGahan after suffering a concussion during last weekend's underwhelming win against Aironi which should see him sidelined, but, unusually, Munster have not ruled him out yet.

"He was tested and will be tested again at the back end of the week and so we certainly won't be taking any risks with him," McGahan added.

"We're fortunate in that we have four quality nines who can start and also play off the bench and give us a different dimension."

New signing Luke Chambers seems likely to continue in the midfield as Munster seek to encourage their Irish contingent's efforts to cast aside their World Cup disappointments and, perhaps like four years ago, launch a determined effort to add a third Heineken Cup title to their impressive list of achievements.

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