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Standards hard to maintain

The provinces have done well to overcome IRFU shortcomings, says Brendan Fanning

Somewhere last Monday morning, whether it was on social media, as the avalanche of comment outlets is now called, or the mainstream route, there was a rather grand announcement that Munster were officially the third-best province in Ireland.

If they had been coming from fourth place this would have been a cause for celebration down south. We think the announcement may have come from north of the border. Within minutes of the final whistle in Thomond Park the previous day, plans were under way for the second wave, coming all of 13 years after the first when Northern Ireland emptied itself over the border and washed into Dublin.

Munster's reaction was what you would expect from a group for whom the only yardstick is silverware. Since then, Ronan O'Gara has been out front talking about the maddening frustration of coming up short, and wondering where they go next. We can understand the first bit, especially for a manic competitor who is obsessed with making every remaining minute count, but it's as if no allowance is made for where they are, never mind where they are going.

They are in the transit lounge, and have been parked there since last season. Between retirements and players moving elsewhere, the group was already changing significantly from the one that had defended the 2008 Heineken Cup success.

In January 2009, Munster wrapped up their qualification for the knockouts with a handy run-out, after a delay due to a storm, in Montauban. In the pack that day Munster had a front row of Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery and John Hayes, two thirds of which is now gone, and the remaining third is hanging on in the background -- by an illegal bind. In the second row were Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell. That O'Callaghan is still there is testament to the incredible effort he has put into looking after himself. And we're not talking cosmetically-induced colour here, rather painstaking preparation that

has allowed him to achieve beyond his talent. As for O'Callaghan's partner, his career is younger than its 11 years of pro rugby because of injuries and suspension which, since 2010, have taken a season out of his life.

The back row that afternoon comprised Alan Quinlan, now retired, David Wallace and Denis Leamy. Wallace, 36 in the summer, has done well to come back at all from the heap that lay on the sideline in Croke Park in August last year. Leamy is 31 and in his tenth season with Munster, and with a chronic hip injury that needed surgical intervention last Christmas, you'd fear for his future.

O'Connell was the only one of that forward pack to start last Sunday in Thomond Park. Behind the scrum, there were three survivors: Keith Earls, Lifeimi Mafi and Ronan O'Gara. That's a sizeable turnover in three seasons. And it's linked, naturally enough, to the consistency that saw, for example, only two changes in the forward packs that played the quarter-final against Biarritz in 2005, and the one that saw off Toulouse for that second title win in 2008.

Viewed in that light, Munster have done pretty well. In fact, they did very well. Coming through their pool unbeaten may have had bad karma about it but it was an achievement nonetheless. Especially when you consider the list of those missing from action: Doug Howlett, Felix Jones until the tail end of the campaign, David Wallace, and Leamy.

That this should have gone unacclaimed reflects the crazy level of expectation that still clings to Munster since they became one of the biggest brands in world rugby. There hasn't been any allowance for disbanding the crew that carved out that position. In these circumstances, it's appropriate to recognise the contribution of Tony McGahan. He will be badly missed. McGahan arrived here just in time to make a small but positive impression on Munster's first successful title campaign, in 2006, and a much greater one two seasons later when they were at their peak. He only took full control however when they were coming down the side of the mountain.

The first steps of that journey were in 2009 when they were ambushed by Leinster in the semi-final in Croke Park. They were probably good enough that season to make it back-to-back titles, but have been slipping off that pace ever since, and changing personnel as they went.

McGahan has never been too forthcoming with the media when at the top table, but it hasn't been that hard to form an impression of what he is about and why he is leaving. Our clear impression of the latter is that he got a better offer from Australia, which is home, where he will find it easier to do business, largely because that business is run on a professional basis.

That is not the case in Ireland. Amateurs still call the most important shots in Lansdowne Road, which is why we have arrived in this country at a situation where, incredibly, there is nobody in head office directing the strength and conditioning policies of the provinces. That's quite a shortcoming in a collision sport.

If that job of national fitness director has been vacant since the World Cup, and the union knew it would be vacant six months before that, you have to wonder about the quality of the Player Management Programme which governs how McGahan, Joe Schmidt, Brian McLaughlin and Eric Elwood pick their teams every week. Indeed you have to wonder about everything.

McGahan was deeply frustrated with the IRFU's restraints on his weekly trade and it must have contributed to his decision to leave. He was also frustrated with the state of the Munster Academy as he found it, and while the numbers game alone militates against it competing on an even footing with Leinster, it will be in better shape for his input.

All the players he blooded in Europe in the last two seasons came from the first or second year of that programme. We don't know if this means the programme was racing along at such a lick that it was spewing out talent ahead of schedule, or that they had to be rescued to train with the senior squad in order to get up to speed.

The same task faces David Humphreys in Ulster. Their production programme has worked better than Munster's but the comparisons with Leinster still leave them chasing the game. They have comparable stats at schools level but half the number of club players. And Leinster are fairly advanced in having an input to how those schools prepare their players, while Ulster are not.

Of course it suits Humphreys' cause to say that Brian McLaughlin has always been the man to do that job for Ulster, but it may well be that he is. It's just that if the current coach takes his team into a Heineken Cup final -- the absence of John Afoa from the mix in the semi-final makes that a taller order -- it will make the timing hard to justify. In which case Humphreys will say that, on the contrary, this is clear evidence that McLaughlin has done all he can do with the senior team and it's time to go and develop those who can do it again.

This is something we should bear in mind when touting Joe Schmidt for the Ireland job. On the basis that Ireland is at the top of the tree and can pluck from the branches below, it is becoming widely accepted that some day not too far off, Mick Dawson will get a knock on the door of his fancy new office, in Leinster's equally fancy new HQ in Belfield (it has a gym the size of a school hall), and find an IRFU representative asking that Schmidt be sent out for a chat.

And because Test rugby is above provincial rugby, he will make the walk over to Lansdowne Road without thinking. Interestingly, this is a corresponding journey Andy Farrell turned down in England last week, choosing to stay with Saracens instead.

As for Schmidt, it would be a surprise if he didn't feel some of the frustration that has boiled Tony McGahan's blood. This would not be whingeing for the sake of it that he can't do his job with someone looking over his shoulder, for nobody comes into the Irish system without understanding the shape of the pyramid that has green across the top.

Rather it's a question of being part of a system that is as good as it can be. Clearly that isn't the case when the whole operation has been chugging along with no vision and no direction from Lansdowne Road on how the players are best used. It is joke stuff. If Schmidt moved up he would be even closer to the jokers.

We'll see what Mark Anscombe makes of it when he takes over from Brian McLaughlin in Ravenhill in the summer. We have a fair idea what both McGahan and Schmidt think of it already. And while Eric Elwood is less put upon than the others, he is well placed to see the shortcomings of a system that talks about aspirations of being world class, but does nothing to realise that ambition.

It would be a terrific bonus if something fundamental had changed for the better by the time Tony McGahan's replacement settles into the Munster job. If, as expected, it is either Canterbury's Rob Penney, or former All Black Tana Umaga -- and whoever it is will have Anthony Foley as a partner -- then the current forwards' coach can explain a few things about how the system works. Chances are nothing much will have changed. Munster will still be splitting their squad between Cork and Limerick and always falling short because of that, and the IRFU will be talking the talk about challenging the best in the world without getting serious about it.

In those circumstances, it doesn't always matter that much who is first, second or third among our top-three provinces.

Sunday Indo Sport