Sunday 17 December 2017

George Hook: Munster still facing talent drain despite Cronin U-turn

Munster players including Dave Foley, Conor Murray and Mario Sagario following their side's defeat. European Rugby Champions Cup, Pool 4, Round 2 Refixture, Stade Francais Paris v Munster, Stade Jean Bouin, Paris, France. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Munster players including Dave Foley, Conor Murray and Mario Sagario following their side's defeat. European Rugby Champions Cup, Pool 4, Round 2 Refixture, Stade Francais Paris v Munster, Stade Jean Bouin, Paris, France. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
George Hook

George Hook

The straw that almost broke the camel's back. Reports early yesterday morning that James Cronin had as good as made up his mind to leave Munster for the dizzying heights of London Irish were difficult to absorb.

Why would one of Munster's brightest talents choose to leave his own city for an English club languishing second from bottom in the Aviva Premiership?

Cronin's talent has shone brightest over the last five months, during a season where Munster's passenger load has been full to capacity. He is a welcome throwback to the old days where bark and bite were necessary character traits in the Munster initiation process.

Whispers of the 25-year-old's enthusiasm and vigour at training sessions, enough to impress even the great Paul O'Connell, have been backed up by consistently stellar performances on the pitch.

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On current form, Cronin is challenging Jack McGrath for a place in the Ireland starting team. On current form, Cronin should get the nod.

Thankfully, the London Irish rumours were misplaced and confirmation came through yesterday afternoon that one of Munster's few dependable players this season has decided to commit his immediate future to the province.

As a result, a potentially catastrophic loss to Irish rugby has been salvaged.

Still, it's difficult not to think that Munster might struggle to hang on to some of their top names over the coming months.

Munster players leave the field following their side's defeat. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile

Conor Murray has already indicated his intention to stay, but it seems increasingly likely that Simon Zebo is on his way out. Certainly, last weekend, he played like his mind was elsewhere.

Having studied CJ Stander closely over the last few months, one wonders how long the South African-born back-row will be able tolerate the current situation.

Stander qualifies to play for Ireland and the prospect of international rugby is a vital carrot in keeping him in the country. But in order for Stander to realise his international ambitions, Jamie Heaslip will almost certainly have to make way. How likely is it that Joe Schmidt would drop the Leinster No 8 in favour of the new boy in town?

Like Cronin, Stander has delivered consistently for Munster this season, when other 'star' names have seemed content to go into hiding. His aggression in the carry marries wonderfully with a superb ball-handling ability, and while he was found wanting on a couple of occasions defensively last weekend, he has remained Munster's best performer.

Jamie Heaslip, Leinster, leaves the pitch after picking up an injury accompanied by Ciaran Cosgrave, Leinster team doctor. Guinness PRO12, Round 12, Ospreys v Leinster. Liberty Stadium, Swansea, Wales. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Stander's form cannot have escaped the attention of the Ireland coach. For too long now Heaslip has coasted by for Leinster, without any serious challenge to his position.

Stander deserves a chance in the Six Nations opener against Wales in Dublin next month.

As for Foley, one wonders how he really feels about the jetting in of Andy Farrell on a part-time, short-term role with Munster.

Farrell's appointment is yet another indication that Foley and his team aren't up to the job and the time has come for significant and wholesale change.

There have been too many long-shot gambles that have backfired spectacularly over the last two years: the appointments of two inexperienced assistant coaches in Brian Walsh and Mick O'Driscoll, the unfathomable decision (mentioned ad nauseam) to back Ian Keatley over JJ Hanrahan; and most damningly of all, Munster's depleted team spirit, resulting in abject performances.

Yes, the current batch of players is not as good as the glory years of the last decade, but ultimately, the buck stops with Foley. If he cares at all about the future of Munster, he should do the right thing by the team and step aside.

Tomorrow's game at Thomond Park is a dead rubber, despite the best efforts of Mike Sherry to present otherwise. Stade Francais now have a vested interest in winning in Limerick to maintain a quarter-final push. If anything, their starting XV will be stronger than the one that took to the field in Paris last weekend.

Jules Plisson and Will Genia are likely to come in at half backs, with Pascal Pape restored to the second-row and Jonathan Danty back in the centre. That being the case, Stade will virtually be at full strength.

At the very least, I expect Munster to lift their performance levels, but even at full throttle, it remains to be seen if they have enough confidence in their own ability to stop the Top 14 champions in Limerick.

And even though Munster are out of the Champions Cup, Foley must now turn his attention towards the remaining fixtures in the Pro12. As things stand, Connacht, even with last weekend's narrow defeat in Llanelli, are showing no sign of fading gallantly into the mist.

A win for Munster tomorrow might restore a bit of self-belief and kick-start a decent run over the next few weeks. The prospect of missing out on European rugby altogether next season would be unthinkable.

But with each haphazard performance and with the gloom around Munster rugby showing no signing of abating, one certainly wouldn't bet against that doomsday scenario coming to pass.

Irish Independent

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