Saturday 24 February 2018

Neil Francis: Munster's downward spiral began in 2009, but they remain Ireland's best hope

Number of imports and former Leinster players in the team is a sign of the times but...

Munster’s Ian Keatley in action in the Pro12 game against Connacht at Thomond Park
Munster’s Ian Keatley in action in the Pro12 game against Connacht at Thomond Park
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Two prisoners were waiting to be executed. The jailer walks in with a smile on his face and says: "any last requests lads?" The first guy says: "Yes, I'd like to sing a song please." "Which one?" asks the jailer. "The Fields of Athenry" says yer man "all four verses - the long, whingey, whiney, dirgey version."

The jailer turns to the second prisoner and says: "And you?"

"Kill me first."

I hate that bloody song - the only consolation for the speed bump that Irish rugby is currently experiencing is that we are hearing less and less of that song.

This Saturday, once again, this country's final fitful expectations of progressing in the Champions Cup lie with almost exclusively with Munster. Qualification is achievable but such is the gravity of their malaise that you are almost down to an exercise in mathematics to see if they will make it - and so you are almost overcome with apathy.

Munster have five points in the bag, but their most dangerous opponents in the group arrive with pep in their step and a game-plan too. Four points is a must - anything else is just semantics. I don't expect Munster to win in Leicester or against Stade Francais in Paris.

In reality 18 points is about the max you can expect and Stade Francais will be thinking the same or maybe one more. So Saturday has to be a win.

The portents are not good even though the conspiracy theorists concur that Munster nearly always manufacture a crisis on purpose before they play vital European Cup ties.


Their form has been unimpressive this season. You might say that league table position never lies but it is not a cast-iron guarantee of your quality to be in the top four of the Pro12. You don't have to be that good to get there.

The Pro12 now more than ever resembles soccer's Premier League. At the top you have your Chelseas, Arsenals and Manchesters and at the bottom you have your Bournemouth and Norwich (I count on where Chelsea finish in May - not December).

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Likewise we have the usual suspects at the top of the Pro12, and Zebre, Treviso, Dragons etc at the bottom. It really is a two-tier league. It takes a pretty bad performance to lose to any of the bottom four or five teams.

In hindsight Munster's arrival in the last season's Pro12 final really was an outlier. Whatever else about Munster, if they are in contention coming down the final furlong they still have this primal quality of being able to do enough to get themselves into the picture.

Munster got to the final but that 31-13 blowout in Ravenhill with Glasgow scoring four tries and butchering as many chances, told a story.

I remember Paul O'Connell standing on the pitch in the aftermath - his final game in a Munster jersey. O'Connell's face expressionless and the game was up.

Munster had been hitching a ride on the shoulders of a giant. The giant at that stage of the season looked spent, and he was eclipsed that afternoon by the brilliance of Glasgow second-row Leone Nakarawa. Munster didn't stand a chance.

When you move from one life to the next having spent over 15 years of association with one team you would like to know that the team you sweated blood for would be in good stead when you step down.

Quite possibly that 1,000-yard stare etched in O'Connell's gaze was the realisation that the ship was holed below the waterline and unless Munster found some new talent and new ideas there would be endless winter for the foreseeable future.

As Manchester United found out on Tuesday night, in sport there are no guarantees - if you want a guarantee, buy an electric toaster. When the good days end, the thing that occupies the franchise is how long you will be walking in the desert before things turn.

If you chart Munster's rise, it started in the 2000-01 season and ended about 7pm on May 2, 2009.

No-one would ever have imagined that three weeks previously to the Leinster vs Munster semi-final in Croker that Munster's 43-9 obliteration of a very strong Ospreys side in Thomond would be pretty much the zenith of their era of domination. The fall was as dramatic as it was unexpected.

There were plenty of moments to savour in the Leinster game, but it was one that came off the pitch that stuck with me for a long time. There were 12 minutes left on the stadium clock when I got a tap on the shoulder from a colleague in the press box.

A Munster fan close to us was dolefully rolling up a "to the brave and the faithful nothing is impossible" and walking out the gate - surely the irony wasn't lost on him. I felt compelled to run after him and ask him the question but there was still too much happening on the pitch.

A 25-6 scoreline was not nearly as emphatic as the Leinster performance.

The thought stuck with me that day that dynasties can end like a light switch going out. The revenge match in the RDS that October heralded a 30-0 thrashing and that was that for Munster's dynasty.

Sure there have been European semis and good days since but the graph hasn't wavered and from May 2009 to the present day, there has been a sense of treading water in a sea of sharks without ever knowing when or if the great days will come again.

Munster and indeed Leinster and Ulster could be destined to the fate of Newcastle United - great heritage and tradition, big support but no meaningful trophies since 1955.

The big support thing has frayed at the edges too. The good news? Well all the Lunsters have gone for good out of Thomond.

One of the things that struck me about the loss to Connacht was the composition of the team. There were six non-Irish in the side: Gerhard van den Heever, Francis Saili, Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino, BJ Botha, Mark Chisholm and CJ Stander.

Stander is still not yet Ireland qualified and despite his vaunted status at Munster is still a South African aspiring to play for Ireland. I don't think he is smart enough or good enough. Man of the match awards in the Pro12. . .?


There were also three former Leinster players in Ian Keatley, Robin Copeland and Andrew Conway. Again the malaise dictates that they are a necessary addition. Connacht had 13 Ireland-qualified players in their starting XV.

In the Munster glory years their players were, with the odd exception, all Irish and all Munster. The Munster schools and academy, even though sometimes at odds with the Munster branch, turn up the odd gem, but there just isn't enough quality coming through and crucially very few leaders as well.

This situation may not change for a good while, and so Munster continue with the fishes and the loaves. Competitive but under-resourced.

We expect Munster to be competitive and somehow get across the finish line ahead of a Leicester team that do not fear Munster and will fancy their chances.

But it wouldn't be a surprise if the Tigers managed to walk out of Thomond with a win and leave the whole country needing an industrial dose of Prozac to try and allay what is happening in Irish rugby.

Irish Independent

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