Brendan Fanning: 'Hard yards ahead as Munster seek return to the top table'
Thomond Park outfit must optimise operation by developing their own and raiding Leinster
The 90 minutes before kick-off in and around Thomond Park is rugby's equivalent of Met Éireann's 'A' team. On their best days the weather watchers have the arrival of the next payload from mother nature down to the minute. A bit like Limerick pre-match. In November and December this season, for the visits of Racing and Saracens respectively in the Champions Cup, the body language said it all. Euro rugby rush hour starts a bit earlier. Everyone moves a bit quicker. You feel and hope that something special is coming, and you want to be seated and sorted for when it arrives. The buzz is unmistakeable.
On the walk around the stadium to get to the press entrance you are drawn to the demeanour of the away fans. Little pockets if they are French, larger if they are from across the Irish Sea, for the travelling band this is a box to be ticked on rugby's bucket list. A heaving Thomond Park on a European day is like the latter-day Stade Marcel Michelin, after Montferrand became Clermont Auvergne and the team became the town; Welford Road when Tigers weren't worried about relegation from the Premiership, and were ambitious for bigger honours; Toulouse when the scale of the occasion demands a move from Ernest Wallon across town to the Stadium de Toulouse.
Lunchtime in Limerick today brings Ospreys to town. That would be the same Ospreys who gave them a hard enough time in Swansea back in November before conceding a bonus point with the game done, but not quite dusted. The same Ospreys who this season have lost all five pool games in Europe, and have the worst points' difference of any of the 20 sides in the competition. As for the Pro 14, they are bottom of Conference A with one win from 10 games. And, naturally enough, the worst points difference there as well. They are not the aristocrats of Europe.
So the pre-match today will be instructive. An early kick off against opposition with woeful form doesn't stir the soul. Needing to win with a fat margin focuses the mind, however.
For Munster the metric is Europe. It has become a millstone. Keith Earls is the sole survivor from the 38 names put forward to ERC for Munster's Heineken Cup squad in 2007/08, the second and last time they won the competition. Running through the names is like looking through a window on a bygone era.
From age grade to AIL to the pro game, seven lads are involved now in coaching or rugby admin, between Ireland and France. The media have picked up another six between union and league. Two more are earning a crust through physio and S&C. And three are still playing: Earls and Donnacha Ryan in the pro game, and Gerry Hurley in the AIL with Cork Con. A handful of others, to be honest, we can't remember or never registered mentally in the first place. It's a sizeable crew. And it's a long time ago.
Notwithstanding the time lag those monumental days in Cardiff in 2006 and 2008 still have a presence that seems more awkward than anything. The longer the wait the greater the pressure to close the gap. And with that pressure some salient points are lost.
Much of Munster's success in those days was prefabricated on the fields of the All-Ireland League, a competition they dominated in its first decade, with Cork Con, Garryowen, Young Munster and Shannon covering the first nine titles. The same league has been sidelined.
"The old AIL was the best academy that Munster had and it produced some great players," Paul O'Connell says. "Munster didn't need to have a long-term plan to produce players. The big senior AIL clubs did it for them. These clubs had to produce their own talent, and harvest it from junior clubs around the province. There was a natural funnel with most players wanting to play AIL Division One rugby. This did the job for Munster."
By the time the stranglehold was broken, with St Mary's winning in 2000, Munster had made the mental connection with the pro game and made it to their first Heineken Cup final. It took a few years for the AIL to slip off the back pages of the newspapers and into the round-up of any other business, but there was no going back. Munster's hard core were AIL graduates, but the next generation were shown a different path.
"There's a brilliant organic system in Leinster which is their schools cup competition," O'Connell says. "Leinster supplement that with great management and development of the talent coming through that system. Unfortunately for Munster the landscape has changed and they don't have a system at the moment that produces the talent in the numbers capable of winning the European Cup. For me that's the biggest challenge for Munster right now.
"It's not signing a few players to try and win a European Cup now, even though that's important. It's to identify top-class people that want to work with underage kids and underage coaching creating a vibrant system and culture that produces great local players for the clubs and the province. It's a more difficult job than Johann Van Graan's, and those people are probably harder to find than an RG Snyman or a Damian De Allande. We can't copy Leinster. We can't recreate what we had. But something innovative and original has to happen."
It's ironic that O'Connell should say they can't copy Leinster, which is pretty much what they tried when Leinster were the first to produce a handbook on running an academy, once the process devolved from the national academy, run by the IRFU, to the provinces. For quite a while Munster's academy was not exactly a brand leader. This was, and still is, compounded by the numbers game: Leinster is bigger. More jobs, more people, more money.
The other irony is that folks are falling over themselves now to worship at the altar of the Leinster Schools Senior Cup. It took a lot of lobbying, from those on the professional side of the house in Leinster who saw the bigger picture, to develop a relationship with schools for whom the only day of significance on the calendar was March 17. For them, Leinster was another planet, an alien threat. What followed has been a flood of middle order schools who go to the start line every season knowing their chance of a run to Paddy's Day is remote, to get on the production line of professional players.
So if you have St Michael's at one end - they had two 4G pitches before rugby in Cork had one - churning out talent year after year, then further down the conveyor belt are a raft of non-title-ranking institutions making a critical contribution. Of the current Leinster senior squad who have been home-grown, 14 come from that neck of the woods, or the clubs' youth system, which itself is no longer some backwoods operation. If you're doing that on a large scale, based in a city of more than a million people where there is no other professional sport in town, you should never be far off the pace once you put manners on the system.
O'Connell would probably feel ill at the prospect of Munster being fuelled by Leinster. When we painted a picture for his old scrummaging buddy Donncha O'Callaghan of Leinster back-boning the provincial game across the country the blood drained from his face. At current production rates, however, either more players from this neck of the woods will go across the water or around the country. But there won't be room for them in the built-for-purpose set-up that is Leinster's base in UCD.
When you factor in those nuts and bolts it's easier to understand why Munster are not trading at the same level. How could they? It's interesting that O'Connell should laser in on the need for "top class people that want to work with underage kids". He sounds like a man with patience for the long game but frustration that it hasn't happened yet. That won't tilt the demographics in Munster's favour, for keeping them in the province depends on more than their love of rugby.
What they can control is the quality of their own operation. There are enough people playing and supporting rugby across the province to give them the raw material to be competitive. And that's what they are, evidently. Seven times in the last 10 seasons they have qualified for the knockout stages of Europe's premier competition. Five of those seven have seen them in the semi-finals. Over the same period in the Pro 12/14, they have been in the last four eight times, winning one (2011) of three final appearances.
Yes, that's a lot of pain in semi-finals across the two competitions - three wins from 10 - but clearly Munster are very competitive. Theirs is a big brand, they have a large, one-eyed, loyal fanbase. Thomond Park may be a wind tunnel but it's a decent size and it throbs on the big days. The problem is that for most associated with the organisation, being competitive doesn't quite cut it, They want to be dominant again. They want to be top dog in Europe which, en route, would mean lording it over the crowd they christened 'ladyboys'.
The only way that will happen is by becoming very good at developing more of their own, recruiting more from Leinster - which should not be an excuse for getting their own house in order - and making sure that every I and T across Munster Rugby Inc is dotted and crossed. That's a lot of work and a fair bit of investment. In the meantime, they should reward the fans who turn up at Thomond Park this afternoon with a performance worthy of a bigger occasion.