Saturday 23 March 2019

Brendan Fanning: More challenging times ahead for Munster’s Brave and Faithful fans

Anthony Foley is the third coach since Declan Kidney to try and sustain or recreate the dominance of the 2006-2008 crew
Anthony Foley is the third coach since Declan Kidney to try and sustain or recreate the dominance of the 2006-2008 crew
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Sometimes in rugby what seems like a small enough thing going wrong in the first minute actually turns out to be a tipping point. Take the penalty loose head Dennis Buckley conceded on the first play for Connacht against Edinburgh in the Pro 12 two weeks ago. It was a bad call by referee Leighton Hodges, and it gave the Scots a chance to exit immediately. Had he made the right call then Connacht would almost certainly have been three points up, with the gale-force wind behind them, and the prospect of an immediate return to enemy territory on the cards.

They ended up losing, and it is not unreasonable to trace their troubles back to that opening play.

That was not the case in Barnet last weekend. Yes, Munster got off to a shocker with Duncan Williams getting blocked down — the fact that he was in for the injured Conor Murray seemed to add extra gravity to the incident — but they were such a distant second in so many areas that nothing in the first few minutes was going to dictate everything that happened thereafter.

To compound their pain, there was a hefty presence of red around the ground. It was notable afterwards that some of the messages on social media made sympathetic noises to those who had travelled to witness it rather than those who were on the stage itself.

You have to have sympathy for supporters who shell out in hard times and end up travelling in vain; but that’s sport. And when the voyagers are setting off with seemingly the same level of expectation as when they were kings of Europe then you need to take a step back.

Anthony Foley is the third coach since Declan Kidney to try and sustain or recreate the dominance of the 2006-2008 crew. Under Tony McGahan, who had a big hand in the second of those European triumphs, Munster won two Celtic league titles and were twice beaten in Heineken Cup semi-finals.

Then under Rob Penney, who changed utterly the way Munster were playing on the premise that what they were doing by the end of McGahan’s time was no longer working, they made it to another two Heineken semis. In the six years of McGahan and Penney the squad changed massively, with the old guard packing up, yet only once did they fail to get to the knock-out stages of Europe. Leinster and Toulouse are the only other clubs to reach such consistency.

Munster’s fans didn’t want to listen to the message that this was high achieving relative to their dwindling squad strength. Rather they expected silverware delivered year after year.

A couple of things militate against satisfying this hunger: first, their pool of local talent is shallow, certainly compared to Leinster’s where in any one season you have circa 25 schools — six of which are quasi professional in the way they prepare their players — churning out hopefuls.

Of course Munster have their heavyweights from the Old Firm in Cork, to Rockwell, to Limerick’s big four, but the difference in Leinster is that the expanding middle order is comparatively huge. Moreover through the five regional divisions in the province, Leinster’s clubs are adding significantly to the pile of talent on tap.

Second, Munster just don’t have the cash. Their deficit came down from €800k in 2013 to €586k last season, and the forecast for the current term is €400k. The absence of a home European quarter-final alone this season takes another potential €450k payday out of the equation, so you can see how results drive the bus.

Despite all this, Anthony Foley claimed last week that lack of financial muscle had not been an issue in Munster failing to nail down targeted players. This is a bit like saying you’re a good-looking bloke but you’d rather chase ugly women.

The reality is that none of the Irish sides are as handsome as they were, simply because of the money washing around France. England, too, are increasingly getting aboard the benefactor bandwagon, so the challenge for all Ireland’s provinces is clear.

You wonder though if Munster are getting the message. According to their Strategic Plan 2014-2017 the goal is to be the “best rugby club in Europe based on our unique ethos.” Their specific target this season was/is to be the best Irish province, to finish in the top four of the Pro 12, and to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions Cup.

On the domestic front they’ve won three of their four interpros, with a home tie against Connacht and an away one to Ulster to come, so that’s looking ok. In the Pro 12 they are in third place, two points off the lead. Clearly Europe, however, is a goner. Moreover their target of winning every home game has also drifted into the bin, with three blots on that copybook already this season.

The Strategic Plan is worth reading if only for its awfulness. It’s like something copied from ‘Plans R Us,’ right down to a typeface that Cromwell might have chosen in drafting battle plans for his Roundheads. If we understand it correctly Munster hope to win the Champions Cup/Pro 12 double in 2016/17, which would be an achievement they never managed when they were, as the goal describes, the best club in Europe based on their unique ethos.

They might be better served relying less on the lore of their ethos and more on developing and buying players, staff and facilities. It will be July 2016 before the new UL training base will be ready for occupation, which promises to be a terrific asset. It will arrive some 12 years after back-rower Jim Williams went on the record in these pages — in the wake of a defenceless Munster loss to Wasps in the Heineken semi-final — to lament the madness of straddling Cork and Limerick in any given training week.

That’s also part of the history: a refusal to address difficult political issues that hindered the development of the team, the brand, the ethos. The scale of the setback in Saracens last weekend has shocked the Brave and the Faithful, but they need to appreciate that it wasn’t like the opening play of that Connacht game where a bad call brought the house down. They have done remarkably well to keep the bright side out for so long.

Munster: S Zebo; A Conway, K Earls, D Hurley, R O’Mahony; I Keatley, D Williams; J Cronin, D Casey, BJ Botha; D Foley, P O’Connell; D O’Callaghan, P O’Mahony, T O’Donnell.

Sale: L McLean; T Brady, A Forsyth, M Jennings, T Arscott; N MacLeod, W Cliff; A de Marchi, T Taylor, R Harrison; A Ostrikov, J Beaumont; M Easter, V Fihaki, D Seymour

Referee: M Mitrea (Italy).

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