Monday 19 February 2018

Alan Quinlan: Likes of Zebo and Murray must do more to fill leadership void left by O'Connell

Simon Zebo and Conor Murray are senior men at Munster. Photo: Sportsfile.
Simon Zebo and Conor Murray are senior men at Munster. Photo: Sportsfile.

Alan Quinlan

In a week where there has been plenty of questioning about the leadership on and off the field in Munster, it was ironic that perhaps their greatest leader of all pulled on another red jersey.

Seeing Paul O'Connell in a slightly lighter shade of red was tough to take in. It made me a bit sad to see it, but also happy for Paul: here is a guy that has played for no-one else other than Munster on the club scene. For 15 years he has consumed Munster rugby, but he will never pull on that jersey again.

Paul will be forever a Munster man, but Toulon is probably the only other club he would join to get a couple of more years out of his career: they have such a huge squad and he won't have to play every week.

When I first heard rumours that he was going I thought, 'No way, that won't happen. He has a year left on his contract and the IRFU won't let it happen'.

When it became a reality I soon realised it was going to be very hard on Munster. To be frank, it's not the best time for him to have left the province - more than ever now they need his leadership qualities, but retirement was in his mind anyway.

In the last two or three years, since Munster were hit with so many injuries and retirements, Paul carried the brunt of the workload at the province. He has driven the standards and has probably had to do extra - even though Peter O'Mahony was the captain - such was his influence around the place.

He played a massive role in helping so many younger players into the set-up a bit earlier than they might have expected.

And that can be tiresome as well. As Ireland captain and the natural leader of Munster, there would have been big pressure on him. You are always put in front of the media - a job he excels at - forever speaking at team meetings and training, continually meeting the coaches and being involved in the planning process.

Most teams nowadays have a leadership group, which takes some of that pressure off the captain, but it would still have been hectic for him.

I'd say at this point he's probably glad to be shorn of some of that responsibility, to be able to focus on himself and his recovery from the injury. The break in the sun will do him no harm at all, although I hope he has the factor 50 with him at all times! But still, would you be surprised to see him as Toulon captain next season?

But he's is now a French club rugby player and Munster have to cope with that and get over it.

Last weekend against Leicester they certainly looked rudderless at times, there was a touch of panic in a lot of what they did, and a few lads were looking at each other waiting for someone to step forward into the breach.

Having had Paul there for the entirety of their careers, it is hard to cope without him.

Not having Peter or Tommy O'Donnell fit to play at the same time was a bit of a double blow. O'Mahony has been groomed for a couple of seasons as the natural successor. Since he came in the door he oozed leadership qualities, so not having that calm, level head out there on match day is bound to create a vacuum.

I'm sure Peter is involved behind the scenes as he recovers from injury, playing his part in the preparation, talking to players, building confidence, but it's very different on the pitch.

CJ Stander is the captain and he is a leader by example. He never fails to surpass expectations as a back-row, but he is a young player who is very new to the role of captaining his province. It's his job to communicate with the referee, keep his team-mates on track, read the game and do his own job.

I only ever captained Munster once, against Ulster, and even though we won and it went okay for me, I found it a difficult experience trying to do so many jobs at once.

When O'Mahony started he was a bit of a greenhorn, but crucially, he had some hugely experienced players alongside him for guidance.

With this dearth of experience at the helm, we need to see more of Munster's more experienced players stepping forward to set an example.

Guys like Conor Murray, Keith Earls, Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo - it's up to them now to lift their input in the province.

They are Munster's Irish internationals; they are the guys that are guaranteed starters every week; they've been brought up with so many great leaders around the squad. They must take this team by the scruff of the neck and guide it through this troubled run of three defeats in a row.

Up in Leinster there has been a bit of panic in recent times too, but instead of suffering a lack of leaders, big-game players are tripping over each other at the RDS. If you look at the team last week against Toulon, you could pick out eight or ten guys that you'd expect to be real standard setters in their organisation.

I suspect much of their problems have stemmed from the World Cup. Leo Cullen essentially had a squad together for the start of the season, then had to push 15 or 20 lads into the background when all his stars came back from Ireland duty. It certainly has taken them a bit longer to bed back in to the provincial game, but there was enough hints from last weekend that there is more cause for optimism.

There was plenty to be impressed with in the way they kept Toulon within touching distance for long periods, but in the end their ill-discipline and over-eager play at the breakdown cost them dearly. But I'd certainly prefer to see a team play like that than to be standoffish when it came to contact and intensity.

The only problem now is that improvement has come too late to rescue their Champions Cup campaign. They are well capable of beating Toulon this afternoon if they show the same intensity in a controlled manner, which would lay a real marker down for the rest of their season.

The funny thing is if Munster can win tomorrow at Welford Road they are right back in the hunt for a quarter-final slot. And I believe it's well within their capabilities to do so.

But their frailties are some that I suspect won't be fixed in the short term. O'Connell is in a different red shirt now; it will be a few months before we see O'Mahony back in there, O'Donnell will be back in a few weeks which would be a big boost; but until a few more guys take on that responsibility on the pitch, it's hard to see any long-term improvements.

After this weekend we'll see Leinster come to Thomond Park on St Stephen's Day for the inter-pro derby. Imagine what that game would be like if Leinster win today and Munster lose tomorrow. It makes for an interesting sideshow to this week's European action.

Irish Independent

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