Tuesday 15 October 2019

Alan Quinlan: Three superstars who could help Munster recapture former glories

Savea and (inset) Abramovich
Savea and (inset) Abramovich
Julian Savea of the All Blacks. Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

If, in a parallel universe, you were able to parachute Roman Abramovich and his big chequebook into Thomond Park, then I'd be the first to approach him with some free advice.

Like almost every fan, Roman wants instant success. Unlike almost every fan, Roman can buy it.

So if my imaginary world was to ever become a reality, then after a brief discussion about quota systems and the complications presented by the fact you are limited to only four foreigners and one project player in your squad, I'd get straight down to business.

"Munster's problem is simple," I'd say. "The pack has improved no end over the last year. Conor Murray is world class but was badly missed in the Champions Cup semis. There's plenty of talent in the backline but they need to play with a lot more variety.

"That's why Rassie Erasmus said after last weekend's defeat that they're 15 points below Saracens' standard and that they have a way to go before they can catch up.

"The thing is they can bridge that gap that bit quicker if you sign these three players: Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett and Sam Whitelock. If Sam says no, get Brodie Retallick. And if Savea gives you the thumbs down, go for Ben Smith. With three of those lads in your squad, you're in business."

Could it happen? In rugby, when money talks, players don't always walk. Smith, when offered the chance to take the big bucks on offer from a few European clubs, Munster being one of them,opted to stay put, seeing a greater value in wearing the All Black jersey than in receiving a sizeable pay increase.

Bearing this in mind, and the fact the greatest All Blacks to have previously migrated to Europe have done so at the tail end of their careers, I'd say Munster would have to deliver salaries of €1m per year to get guys like Savea, Whitelock and Barrett in their prime.

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Of course this is all fanciful stuff. There won't be an Abramovich or All Black invasion. The only reality is how much it would cost Munster to get the type of players they need to beat clubs like Saracens, who have 24 internationals on their books.

Julian Savea of the All Blacks. Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images

And it's why someone like Savea, who in size (6ft 3in, 17st) speed, power, evasive skills and outstanding finishing, has brought justifiable comparisons with Jonah Lomu, would make a difference.

Scorer of 45 tries in 52 Tests, he was shortlisted for World Player of the Year award in 2014 and 2015, and even last year, when he was berated for a loss of form, he still managed seven tries for New Zealand.

So what's there not to like?

Well, there was the assault charge he faced four years ago against his former partner, Dawn Rodgers, which was subsequently withdrawn by a Wellington District Court judge, after he completed a police diversion course.

Other, considerably less serious accusations, were also thrown at him when he reappeared for one pre-season overweight.

With all this in mind, would he be a guaranteed success?

My inkling is he would, that he'd maybe only feature in 15 to 20 games per season, that he'd only really be motivated by the bigger games, but that he'd score tries from anywhere.

What happens on the field wouldn't be the concern. Instead, I'd look at what his wife Fatima said in an interview with a New Zealand lifestyle magazine earlier this year when she spoke about homesickness.

"It's never easy when Julian is away," Fatima Savea said. "And being in Wellington is also a little hard as my family is in Auckland."

Limerick, I'm afraid, is even further.

And that's the problem when you sign overseas players. Adjusting to a new environment isn't always easy, often because their partners or families are unhappy to have left home.

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And that's the dilemma each Irish province faces when they enter the marketplace. Unlike Saracens or Clermont or any of the bigger spenders in France or England, they can't really afford to get a signing wrong.

Nor can they afford to have a player with a dodgy attitude lurking around their dressing-room, especially one on a bigger salary than his team-mates because while everyone wants to play with a big-time player, no-one wants to hang around with someone who doesn't pull their weight.

Savea, I'm convinced, would fit in.

Christian Cullen certainly did when he joined. He was a superstar but was also humble. Dougie Howlett, John Langford, Jim Williams, Trevor Halstead, Rua Tipoki and Lifeimi Mafi were top blokes as well as top pros.

It never bothered me if they were paid more, although I'd be a liar if I said I jumped for joy on the day I heard we signed Jim, a fellow flanker.

But Munster fans would jump for joy if Barrett joined. Still only 25, the fact he has already scored 18 international tries demonstrates both how skilful and intelligent he is.

The value of a player's positional sense can be underestimated, but from watching Barrett's development into a world class operator, who can become an even better player than Dan Carter, it's clear that so many of his scores come from his innate sense of where to be at the right time.

Make no mistake, he'd be sensational in a Munster shirt, where his versatility would allow Rassie Erasmus to accommodate both him and Tyler Bleyendaal, and where his defensive strength and creativity could prove the difference in games as difficult as last Saturday's.

Then there's Whitelock, whose physical attributes are matched by an iron will and deep tactical intelligence. Think about the difference he made to New Zealand in the Aviva last November after missing the game in Chicago. Retallick was also absent in Soldier's Field, where Donnacha Ryan performed superbly.

Some of Abramovich's millions would also need to be used to keep Ryan on board.

Reconnecting with reality now, these fantasy signings aren't likely to happen any time soon. But what's also evident is that when you reach Champions Cup semi-finals, a couple of high paid superstars make a big, big difference. Saracens had those men. Munster didn't.

These days, the balance sheet has a bigger impact on results than the team sheet.

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