Fitzgerald: Don't take Euro spot for granted
It is not too long ago that Munster heroics in the Heineken Cup were as reliable as death and taxes, but yesterday the province's long-serving chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald warned that things could get even worse for the two-time European champions.
Like head coach Anthony Foley, the Cork native has been in the firing line this week after Saturday's desperately disappointing under-performance against Stade Francais, which led to a second successive pool exit.
In the eight years since they last lifted the trophy, Munster have lost the most talented generation of players they are ever likely to produce, while the conditions in which they operate have changed utterly.
Yet the administration stand accused of squandering the legacy of the mid-2000s when the province were lording it over the big clubs from England and France, were selling jerseys and tickets with ease and had built a brand that appeared indestructible.
Alan Quinlan laid out the charge-sheet in these pages yesterday, and the appointment of Andy Farrell as a consultant to the Munster coaching team afforded a chance for Fitzgerald to defend his time in charge and offer hope to fans.
The chief executive sounded up for the fight, praising the province's commercial board and pointing out that, while the province's debt to the IRFU for their contribution to the redevelopment of Thomond Park is €9m, that figure has been reduced from €39m in 10 years.
He claimed that Munster can compete at the higher end of the market for big-name overseas players when they're given permission by the IRFU and said that they could have challenged Ulster for Charles Piutau's signature, despite the northern province forking out €650,000 a year for the All Black.
Yet, with question marks over the coaching ticket and squad amid a run of six defeats in seven games that have derailed Munster's season, there is a fear that things could yet get worse for the Reds.
Fans are devastated by their Champions Cup performance, but Fitzgerald warned that the unthinkable prospect of missing out on the top competition through poor league performance cannot be dismissed.
"The reality of it is, you have got to look at it, it can happen," he said. "Gloucester weren't in (the Champions Cup) this year, Wasps weren't in it a couple of years ago. There is nothing guaranteed in this business anymore.
"You have got to fight for everything, you have got to perform on the team. And if you don't perform on the field there are repercussions and that's it.
"That's not something that we are looking at. Our aim is to qualify for it. I think it will be really difficult. Because any of the teams in the Pro12, most weekends can nearly beat each other, most of them. That's why it makes it such a good league, that doesn't happen as much in the Aviva Premiership and certainly doesn't happen in France.
"It's not something that we want to happen. In any one year it could happen, and it has happened to lots of other clubs and it could happen to us, but have got to do everything we possibly can to make sure it doesn't happen."
With Foley admitting that he is considering whether to continue in his role beyond the end of the season, everyone at Munster must be reviewing their own part in the decline and Fitzgerald is no different.
"Have I considered my position? I frequently think about it but I am positive," he said. "I think I am making a contribution, I think I can make a contribution and it would be very fast the day I think I am not making a contribution that I'd question myself.
"I am around long enough in this business to know that everyone's day comes at some stage as I'm sure yours might come as well at some stage."
Munster have been criticised on a range of fronts over the past week, from their academy performance to commercial strength, attendances and their ability to recruit from abroad.
Fitzgerald said that he has begun the process of selling the naming rights to Thomond Park to bring in more income to the province, while he said the establishment of a commercial board has helped boost the coffers of the branch.
Pointing out that gates are down across the board in the English Premiership, he maintained that Munster remain an ambitious organisation. Their long-overdue Limerick training base is due to be completed for next season, which should help, but the chief executive conceded that these are challenging times.
"As regards falling off the top of European rugby, that whole scene has changed an awful lot as regards teams, availability of players, budgets; everything has changed. It is way more competitive than it has been. It is harder to get up to that level," he said.
"But to our supporters I would say you have got to be patient, you have to be realistic and you have got to see what is happening other teams as well.
"Our ambition is nothing else but to win trophies and that hasn't changed. If every year you don't, it hurts people every week you lose.
"Me, personally, I feel it that way. I have been involved in rugby a long time, it is a more challenging environment, it is a much more difficult economic environment around the supporter base, and regardless of what people are saying we still have really good support relative to what is going on around a lot of places in Europe."
That is part of the new normal for Munster, who are battling to keep as many of their front-line players as possible for next season in an increasingly competitive transfer market.
Conor Murray and Keith Earls are close to joining CJ Stander and Tommy O'Donnell in signing on, while Simon Zebo will receive a firm offer next week and is the biggest flight risk.
"The extra pressure this year is coming from the Aviva Premiership because they have extra TV money next year that they are currently spending," Fitzgerald, who handles recruitment and contracts, explained of the market.
"Whereas before there was the attraction from France, now you have the draw from England as well. There is a comparison, and obviously the exchange rate.
"It is more attractive again for them. The tax-rate in France is an attractive thing for teams, or for individuals that are being offered similar money - the tax-rate in France is very attractive. But I still think that the top guys, most of them, will stay here."
That would be a boost, but there remain questions over whether Munster are heading in the right direction.
The chief executive fronted up for the organisation yesterday, making a morale-boosting appointment while defending the structures, his coach and the squad, but unless results change the pressure will remain intense.