Saturday 18 August 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Signing of two South African teenagers a worrying development - but Munster's identity remains strong

 

Man-of-the-match Keith Earls shows the scars of battle after their victory over Castres. Photo: Sportsfile
Man-of-the-match Keith Earls shows the scars of battle after their victory over Castres. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Keith Earls, his nose caked with blood, a plug hanging out of one nostril, a big bruised lump under one eye like something you'd see on a mugging victim, touching down in the left corner at Thomond Park on the foulest day imaginable, might just have scored the most Munster of all Munster tries.

That opening try was guaranteed to resonate with the home faithful. They like to see players going through the pain barrier, they respect nothing more than grit and they love the idea that their home ground is rugby's ultimate forbidding fortress.

Rory Scannell, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo celebrate Earls’s first-half try Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Rory Scannell, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo celebrate Earls’s first-half try Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

It's fair to say that the supporters of most teams wouldn't have fancied a game being delayed for three hours while ground staff sought to mitigate the effects of a miserable month's latest deluge. Yet you just know the Munster fans would have relished this bit of suffering, imagining how it might be converted into another legend of Thomond hardiness, perhaps quipping, O'Donovan brothers-like, "We're well used to a bit of rain."

One reason that Earls, utterly electrifying for the second week in a row, was the ideal man to set the ball rolling is that he is the current on-field representative of the storied tradition of working-class Limerick rugby. The tradition may be somewhat diminished in terms of the provincial team these days yet it still imparts a distinct and flavourful tang to Munster rugby.

The keeper of a flame which burns brightly within him, Keith Earls shows why Munster is different. The tradition he springs from has no equivalent in any of the other Irish provinces. Very few of the other clubs competing in the Champions Cup have anything like it.

Beloved

Earls is also beloved because he's the son of the great Ger Earls who, like Noel Healy, Jerry Murray, Niall O'Donovan, Finbarr Kearney and many others, was that emblematic figure in Munster rugby, "the man who'd have got plenty of caps if he was from somewhere else".

The conviction that there exists a metropolitan conspiracy designed to belittle rugby's country cousins hasn't gone away. It drove the notably defensive and partisan reaction to the Gerbrandt Grobler controversy over the past week.

Some might argue that dwelling on Munster's roots is mere sentiment and that these things don't matter any more in an increasingly sophisticated professional era.

Really? The wild jubilation when Munster scored their fourth try of the game can't entirely be accounted for by the fact that it represented the bonus point which meant the team's home quarter-final would be against Toulon rather than La Rochelle.

It surely mattered more to the fans that an Earls run had given another home-grown flyer, Simon Zebo, the chance to gallop over.

The local connection has always been paramount in Munster. That's why though the Leinster team which won three European Cups between 2009 and 2012 may arguably have been the better side, the Munster team which won two, in 2006 and 2008, was far more popular with the Irish sporting public. There was, if you'll pardon the heresy, more of a GAA feel to it.

The simple fact is that people like Munster. Were Ireland's big two to meet in this year's final, most neutrals would favour Munster. People who find it difficult to identify with rugby nevertheless get what Munster are about. They see something they like, something to do with community and integrity and a lack of pretension, something good.

Given the focus on Leinster's all-conquering group campaign it's easy to lose sight of Munster's achievement. Yet it's been remarkable. The prognosis going into the competition was that they were a team in transition and that the heights they'd scaled in last season's cup owed a great deal to the emotional fervour generated by the tragic loss of Anthony Foley. A scrappy opening-round draw in Castres suggested Rassie Erasmus's successor would have his work cut out this term.

Yet Munster have ended up compiling, with the minimum of fuss, the third best overall record in the competition. Only Leinster have a better points difference, and no-one conceded fewer points, a miserly average of less than 15 a match, or fewer tries, eight in six games.

They are genuine championship contenders and no-one will fancy playing them. A match against Munster still represents as rigorous a test of will and courage as the competition has to offer.

Where the likes of Leicester and Toulouse and Biarritz and Stade Francais and Bath have faded over the years, Munster have kept rolling along. Tradition has something to do with that. How long can that tradition survive in a changing world? For me, the province's most dubious recent South African decision was the signing of two 18-year olds from the land of the Springbok.

The South African influence is becoming ever more pronounced at the province but is it really wise to start sourcing schoolboy talent from there? What happens to the Earls and Zebos of the future if this policy continues?

After all, Munster let tighthead Ben Betts slip away last year. An outstanding member of the Irish U-20 team which reached the 2016 World Cup final, Betts played under-age rugby for Young Munster, the traditional epitome of a working-class Limerick club. He recently made his first-team debut for Leicester.

Johann Van Graan can't be criticised in terms of results but should the day come when Munster start more South Africans than local players, something important will have been lost. There is a limit to the amount of imports and project players you can claim love drinking Guinness and singing the national anthem.

Short-term success is not everything in rugby. There is a reason that the sides which have won the last five Champions Cups, Saracens (7,285) and Toulon (13,637) had a combined average home attendance in this season's competition which was less than Munster's (23,508).

You wouldn't like to see Munster becoming Western Province On Tour. They stand for something better, and more important, than that.

Speaking of local players, Munster are entitled to complain that the IRFU decision not to offer Donnacha Ryan a new contract looks even worse now. Ryan was superb for Racing in the group stages, while Jamie Heaslip, who got a new contract despite being older than the Munster lock, has been hors de combat since signing it.

There may be something to the old provincial paranoia after all.

Munster chug on regardless. These dudes abide.

Irish Independent

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