Tuesday 21 November 2017

Alan Quinlan: Ryan is the sort of hard b***ard every team needs and losing him makes no sense

Donnacha Ryan of Munster
Donnacha Ryan of Munster

Alan Quinlan

They are stuck between a lock and a hard place. Aware that Donnacha Ryan will not given a new central contract by the IRFU, and unable to match the financial package Racing 92 have offered him, the last thing Munster needed this week was to contemplate the idea of replacing their stalwart and hard-man.

As if all this wasn’t unsettling enough, the news that Rassie Erasmus is also being head-hunted by the South African Rugby Union has added to the uncertainty surrounding Munster’s build-up to today’s Champions Cup quarter-final.

“I don’t want my situation to become a distraction,” the director of rugby said.

If only life was so simple. Complicating matters is the inclusion of a get-out clause in Erasmus’ contract, similar to the one that allowed Pat Lam to be released from Connacht a year ahead of schedule.

“Do I expect to be at Munster next season? Yes I do,” Erasmus said.

Yet in rugby – much like soccer – money talks, and coaches, as well as players, walk.

No doubt the SARU are deeply regretting the fact they allowed Erasmus to slip away at the end of last season. No doubt they want him back. And if they offer enough money then they may very well get him, which, from a Munster perspective, would be an absolute disaster.

All of sudden, dreams of Champions Cup semi-finals and days of sitting second in the Guinness PRO12 with four rounds remaining could be replaced by days when they fail to make either the knockout stages in Europe or the play-offs in the PRO12, which happened last year.

That was when attendances dipped worryingly: officially there were just 11,713 there to see them play Glasgow and 13,039 at the home game against Ulster.

The place will be packed this evening, though. Packed and rocking, just like the old days, filled with fans who love this team for what they are: edgy, brave and committed.

That’s the thing with Munster fans. They want to see a team filled with passion rather than with superstars.

Erasmus learned all this quickly when he arrived last June, embedding himself into the culture, defusing a potentially uncomfortable situation by making it clear that he wanted to work closely with Axel Foley, rather than to undermine him.

From day one, it was clear the players really enjoyed the environment he and Axel helped create, and as their self-confidence returned, so did their form. Loads of players improved dramatically, as did results, and a sense of hope for Munster’s fans.

And then the trauma of Axel’s passing required a man with intelligence and empathy to deal with the emotional after-effects.

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Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Erasmus provided that, the essence of his gifts as a leader being his ability to make players believe in themselves and his teaching. It was a coup for Munster to get him in the first place, and crazy for the SARU to let him go.

Proof of this will be apparent this evening. Thomond Park is selling out again. European quarter-finals are back again. Progress has been rapid and given the sensible, calm decisions he has made thus far, you can only imagine how better Munster will be again with Erasmus guiding them through another pre-season and another summer’s recruitment.

All of which makes today’s quarter-final a real crossroads match in Munster’s future.

Previously Erasmus has spoken about watching videos of the good old days in Thomond Park, when the crowd made noise and the team made history. Now, he has the chance to experience that raw passion in real time. He can create his own memories, reach his own European semi-final, hear the fans sing his name, live a moment that may tie him emotionally to the place forever.

Win, and it won’t just be a semi-final that Munster could look forward to, but possibly a renewal of his vows. And Munster’s fans can only hope he stays, because in a game that possesses some world-class bullsh***ers, he is a world-class coach. The real deal.

So is Jacques Nienabar, his defence coach. Under his watch, Munster have tightened up considerably, conceding the fewest tries in the PRO12 this season.

Everybody who supports Munster is nervous about losing this pair. If I was running Munster, I’d make sure they hold onto these guys, no matter what the scenario and no matter what the price.

And while we’re at it, I’d be moving heaven and earth to hold into Donnacha Ryan, too. At 33, and recently plagued by injuries, I can understand, to an extent, where the IRFU are coming from in their decision not to award him a new central contract.

But really this is a baffling decision because Ryan – not Devin Toner, Iain Henderson or Ultan Dillane – was Ireland’s best second-row in the Six Nations. He has had a fantastic season with Munster, too, and while he had an injury-disrupted spell in 2014 and 2015, it is the miles on the clock that count, not the date on your birth certificate.

For me, David Nucifora, the IRFU’s high performance director, should be looking at the fact Ryan has developed into a real leader who epitomises the spirit and passion that Munster, and Ireland, need.

I accept they are in a delicate situation where they can’t just reward everyone with new deals, but this guy has become a very important player for Munster, as crucial to the team now as Donncha O’Callaghan and Paul O’Connell used to be.

For want of a more poetic phrase, he’s the sort of hard b***ard every team needs.

Losing him makes no sense because it’ll cost a small fortune to replace him with someone as good.

And amid all this drama, a game of rugby takes place today, and not just any game, but the biggest one Munster have had since 2014. Given the distractions, you’d be inclined to worry. Except that I’m not overly fretful because this Toulouse team is not the team of 2010, 2005, 2003 or 1996.

Tenth in the Top 14, they have conceded 456 points from their 22 league matches this season – whereas, in contrast, Munster have coughed up just 261 points from 18 games in the PRO12.

Contrast this form to their era of dominance. Back then, I remember walking out of Bordeaux’s Stade Chaban Delmas after the captain’s run on the eve of our Heineken Cup semi-final against them in May 2000.

Wearing our baggy T-shirts and fashionably dubious tracksuits, physically we looked like a bunch of amateurs compared to this slickly dressed, powerfully built dudes who passed us in the corridor of the stadium, giving us the thousand yard stare as we walked to our team coach.

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2000: Keith Wood on the charge during the game against Stade Francais

“Bloody hell, those guys are big,” I thought. But so were Keith Wood (above), John Hayes, Peter Clohessy, John Langford, Mick Galwey, Eddie Halvey, David Wallace and Axel – our starting pack that day.

“We believed in ourselves,” Woody said after we defeated them 31-25 the following day. And from that day forward, I never feared any team would run riot against us.

Nor will this generation of Munstermen possess an inferiority complex today, simply because Toulouse have slipped backwards.

That aura is no longer there. Nor is Guy Noves. The long-serving coach may have been part of the decline, before his departure to the French national team, but when I see where Toulouse are now, after such a prolonged and sustained success under one coach, I can’t help thinking of Meath after 2001, when Sean Boylan’s magic dust started to fade, before he decided it was time to step aside.

The Royals have failed to recapture past glories ever since and Toulouse, similarly, are struggling to compete with the new moneyed elite in French rugby, Clermont, Racing, Montpellier, Stade Francais, Toulon.

Much like the Munster team of the noughties, the bulk of their squad was embedded into the culture of the club, and – again, just like Munster – they all grew old together.

 We met in the 2008 Heineken Cup final, just nine years ago. Only two players from either starting XV will feature today, both of them for Toulouse, who, significantly, have lost their last three European quarter-finals, to Edinburgh in 2012, Perpignan in the 2013 Challenge Cup and Munster in 2014.

They’ll not be thinking about those games today. Like Munster, they are trying to fight their way back to previous glories. And underestimating a team containing such powerful and class players would be a foolish thing for any side to do.

And yet I don’t think Munster will fall into that trap. Munster to win. Narrowly.

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