Thursday 21 November 2019

Targeted recruitment drive vital for Munster revival

Reds must sign right players in right positions before they can even contemplate Euro success

Legendary figures like Paul O'Connell are hard to replace but Munster may soon be facing that difficult task. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Legendary figures like Paul O'Connell are hard to replace but Munster may soon be facing that difficult task. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Last June, Munster Rugby published their three-year Strategic Plan mapping out the vision for the province's plan to be "the best rugby club in Europe built on our unique ethos".

It is an interesting document that lays down the objectives for Anthony Foley and his coaching team for all to see.

This season, the first XV are challenged to win all of their home games, be the best Irish provincial team over the course of the 'interpros', finish in the top four of the Guinness Pro12 and reach the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup. By 2016/'17, they are expected to have won one Pro12 and have conquered Europe outright.

Already, two of their four short-term goals have gone out the window. Winning the Pro12 and finishing on top of the 'interpro' table remain within their grasp, but the reality for Foley and his indigenous coaching staff that the challenge of claiming a Champions Cup before the end of their term in charge looks daunting to say the least.

Out of Europe with a week to spare, the Reds have a long time to contemplate their fate.

There is little doubt that their squad needs work, but there is also an acknowledgement in their plan that their academy must be stronger in producing home-grown heroes to sustain the success of the last decade.

Raising commercial revenues by an additional €900,000 to allow the recruitment of a "world-class" player while eliminating the budget deficit is a goal set for next season. It seems clear that the province are aware of the shortcomings that were highlighted so starkly in London last weekend and they have a plan to try and bridge the gap between themselves and the new European elite.

It could be argued that one world-class player would not be enough, that the province need solutions to a myriad of problems.

Their squad certainly needs work, but with resources limited there needs to be a targeted approach to the spending in the seasons to come. Three key areas in particular need attention.

1. Find a midfield maestro

Munster need some magic. Someone to get their backline going, split defences and get fans into the stadium and off their feet.

Before the season even began, it was clear that the options available to Foley were below the standard required and the reliance on converted full-back Denis Hurley and journeyman Australian Andrew Smith has not cut it at the top level. The signs were clear for all to see when Sale Sharks' unheralded pair, Johnny Leota and ex-Munsterman Sam Tuitupou, carved them open on the opening day.

They have looked their most dangerous when JJ Hanrahan assumed the No 12 jersey and he'll be wearing green next season.

Injury to Tyler Bleyendaal has denied them a live option for the inside centre berth, while Keith Earls' woes have also limited the outside centre alternatives.

Foley is in the market for an outside centre to replace Smith at the end of his one-year deal and the province have sounded out All Black Ben Smith and Wallaby Rob Horne about the role.

The Australian looks the more likely option at this stage but, while he is a livewire attacker who can also play on the wing, his name doesn't jump off the page in the way an Adam Ashley-Cooper might.

Unfortunately, the biggest names are heading to France and England. Ma'a Nonu is off to Toulon, Ashley-Cooper to Bordeaux Begles and even one-cap All Black flier Frank Halai has opted for Wasps.

Longer-term, Munster will surely be monitoring the situation of Robbie Henshaw who they have tried to sign before. Leinster have been continually linked with the Ireland centre who is contracted until June 2016, but if he does decide to leave Connacht the talented 21-year-old will have a long line of suitors. Munster would be well-advised to get themselves to the top of the queue.

With Hanrahan gone, there is further depth required and London Irish's Eamonn Sheridan is an obvious option, while Brendan Macken and Collie O'Shea are also on the fringes at Leinster and need game time to progress.

For next season, Horne might not be the biggest name, but he would add some vim behind the Munster scrum, their next area that needs attention.

2. Tighthead succession

BJ Botha would like to stay in Ireland, but the South African's time looked to be up at Allianz Park where he was eviscerated at scrum-time.

Munster have spoken to the IRFU about their options and are likely to be granted permission to either extend the Springbok's stay or replace him from outside. While Stephen Archer and John Ryan have progressed, they are not at the level required.

The number of foreign players allowed by the union is being reduced to four next season, including at least one 'special project' player. The problem is that quality tighthead props are in short supply, with news yesterday that Australia starter Sekope Kepu is joining Bordeaux taking another contender off the market.

If money were no option, then news that Montpellier are pulling out of a deal for Jannie du Plessis might have perked Munster's interest, but the Springbok doctor may only be available in tandem with his brother Bismarck who is world-class, but probably beyond the Irish province's scope.

Perhaps, Munster need to be creative with who they recruit in this area. For example, Ulster's Wiehann Herbst was largely unknown when he signed from the Sharks and he has made an impact when replacing John Afoa, while the Ospreys, who have recruited cleverly from the second-tier nations, have a gem on their hands in Moldovan Dmitri Arhip.

3. Replacing an icon

Stardust doesn't have to come from far-off lands and Munster's success has been built on local talent.

Few have been more naturally gifted than Paul O'Connell, but the legendary second-row was frighteningly mortal last Saturday and is contemplating retirement after the World Cup.

With Donncha O'Callaghan also well into his thirties and not a first-choice option, there is a need to get Donnacha Ryan - back running and hopeful of a return next month - fit and firing alongside Dave Foley.

But Munster are light on options in their engine room and will lose far more than a second-row when O'Connell does call time.

Legendary figures are difficult to find, but Foley could attempt to reprise Ulster's capture of Johann Muller.

Irish Independent

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