Wednesday 11 December 2019

David Kelly: 'Can Munster afford to take time to step back in order to go forward? They simply must'

Peter O'Mahony of Munster gives a team talk following the Heineken Champions Cup Pool 4 Round 2 match between Munster and Racing 92 at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Peter O'Mahony of Munster gives a team talk following the Heineken Champions Cup Pool 4 Round 2 match between Munster and Racing 92 at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Transition is never an appealing status for any team. But it’s a much better look than inertia.

Depending on where one sets the bar for success, Munster have either been playing to par these past few years or else they are well short of making the cut.

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If the measurement is calculated in the currency of gilded medals, then they are well off the pace; last May marked the eleventh season since a Munster hand last raised the European Cup to the skies; it is eight years since their triumph in the less imposing Celtic League arena.

It is a yawning gap of underachievement and yet, a contrary view might be leaned upon if instead one is minded to celebrate a remarkable level of consistency despite an inability to take the final steps to re-ascend the victory plinth.

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Head coach Johann van Graan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Many of the most celebrated names in European rugby – notably multiple winners Wasps and Leicester Tigers – have also struggled to compete with the transformation of club rugby in the past decade as the moneyed giants of Toulon and (cough) Saracens have dominated the continent.

Munster, despite their well-publicised financial difficulties since expanding Thomond Park, have remained hugely competitive.

There has been a surfeit of turbulence during this time; tragedy, too; throughout it all, though, Munster have rarely allowed their standards to dip alarmingly.

And yet for all their genuine competitiveness, the prospects of the side actually winning a European title may now be more distant than ever.

Indeed, it may be more likely that the sides who have blocked their path to a May decider in three successive seasons – Racing 92 and Saracens – may this year conspire to evict them before the knockout stages.

Nobody has created more historic moments than the men in red but another historic milestone – Saturday’s dramatic 21-21 stalemate with Racing 92 at Thomond Park was their first home draw in 176 tournament matches – has left them teetering on the brink.

Saracens’ domestic woes may leave the door slightly ajar should they decide to temper their selection in the first of December’s back-to-back fixtures in Thomond Park.

But, as the crafty Currow native JJ Hanrahan discovered during his latest exposure to the white hot heat of European fare, the scope for error at this level is minimal.

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Andrew Conway of Munster is tackled by Juan Imhoff, left, and Teddy Iribaren of Racing 92 during the Heineken Champions Cup Pool 4 Round 2 match between Munster and Racing 92 at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

It seemed quaintly ironic that the direction of a dropped goal attempt should decide Munster’s fate at the weekend; as the side willed for one more effort, the infamous 41-phase effort against Northampton came to mind.

Eight years ago this month in the same ground, O’Gara’s epic finish ensured Munster snatched another victory from the jaws of defeat against the Englishmen; the out-half would repeat the feat away to Castres a week later, a last-minute effort turning a draw into a win.

Ulster would stun them in a Limerick last-eight tie in Tony McGahan’s final European game in charge; his successor, Rob Penney, arrived from the Canterbury hothouse in New Zealand promising an expansive game-plan.

He would hastily depart, apparently frustrated by the province’s inability to marry forbearance with his foresights.

Arguments still rage about the whys and wherefores of his departure ahead of time.

Under their South African coaches Rassie Erasmus and Johann van Graan, there was much talk of developing the game-plan but the practical business of short-termism got in the way.

Now, the mood for change is palpable but there may be growing pains. Munster will not discard their traditional virtues but it is clear they can no longer solely rely on them.

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Stephen Larkham

Stephen Larkham, a gifted player and an equally skilled teacher of gifts, has been recruited to develop a style which was much too limited to claim the sport’s top prizes.

His dilemma, one that may have to be shared by his squad and their supporters, is that the broad canvas he wishes to paint will not be revealed for all to see at such an early stage.

The initial evidence is promising but the leap from notional intention to practical invention is a formidable one.

Last Saturday’s display against Racing 92, with its confection of double-digit offleads and sloppily spilled passes, indicated that the journey may be closer to the start than the ending.

Can they afford to take time to step back in order to go forward? They simply must.

In Hanrahan, Larkham will have found a kindred spirit, a more mature version of the man who, like Munster, was once lost in transition himself.

They can find a different way now. But patience is key.

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