IRFU to give provinces €1m cash injection to combat European heavyweights
Rassie Erasmus is taking charge of a team struggling to attract players, fans and finance
May 20, 2006: It is 30 minutes before kick off; Level 6 in the Millennium Stadium's West Stand; Munster versus Biarritz in the final of the Heineken Cup. We are wedging ourselves into a press box where cats who like to be swung are unwelcome. The crazy conditions are deserving of a sustained whinge, but it is cut short by the sense of privilege to be there at that time.
The attendance is marginally less than when Munster lost to Leicester at the same venue four years previously, but the lopsided nature of the support this time makes it a unique event. Weighed down by a history of three lost semi-finals and as many setbacks in finals, the momentum of the fans is overpowering. The sense of release at the final whistle will be a watershed moment.
Last week, in his Irish Examiner column, Donal Lenihan was invoking memories of Munster's heroics against touring teams as part of a call to arms. You got the impression that it was a twin-pronged attack: to mobilise the Red Army for their team in need; and to demonstrate that Cork, very much the second city of Munster rugby, could stand up and be counted when it mattered.
The distance between those points - the Millennium and Irish Independent Park - illustrates perfectly where the story has taken us. On Friday night the target against Edinburgh was not to win any medals, rather to be allowed dine at the table where the Champions Cup silverware will be laid next season.
The journey back is only beginning. Friday night was an 8,200 sell-out, which was the perfect start. Sure enough that's what Munster got. And close enough to a perfect finish. The in-between bit reflected a side short on quality and short on confidence. They are back in the Champions Cup queue.
Earlier in the week the next chapter was revealed officially, and in bizarre circumstances, with the introduction of South African Rassie Erasmus, and the marginalising of local hero Anthony Foley.
Having been captain on Deliverance Day, 2006, Foley will feel acutely the pain of Severance Day, 2016. For that's what it is, figuratively if not literally. Reports of Foley's public reaction to the news told us two things: he has the hump with the latest setback; and he has not developed much, as a head coach candidate, to deal more articulately with a setback that has been flagged long since and which he alluded to himself when it was first raised.
This is not to say that Foley cannot express himself well. In fact he is more insightful than most when describing what did and didn't happen in a game. Or rather he is when the mood takes him. And when it doesn't the bottom lip comes out, he avoids eye contact, and sulks.
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More than one man in the Munster set-up suggested to us last week that Foley has got a bum deal from the media. This is prompted because of the comparatively soft ride they reckon is afforded Foley's old adversary on the field, Leo Cullen, in Leinster. The theory is that because the media are largely Dublin-based they interact mostly with Leinster, and therefore reach for the slipper before the boot when writing about them.
Cast your mind back to a Saturday night in mid-January when Leinster played Bath in the RDS. They were zero from four in the Champions Cup at that point. Cullen sent out six players making their first start in Europe, three of them from the Academy. The previous day we got a call from someone in officialdom suggesting that the Leinster coach was treating the tournament with contempt. Had they been driven out the gate backwards that bomb would certainly have been detonated in the following days. Instead they won with room to spare, and suddenly the story focused on the quality of the next generation in blue rather than starting with seven Test players on the bench.
"Delighted for them, that they got a really good, positive reception as well from the crowd, which was fantastic," Ian Madigan said at the time, coming across all paternal. "Unbelievable noise out there tonight."
Earlier that day Munster were engaged, like Leinster, in pursuit of a horse that had also bolted. In front of a bigger crowd than would fetch up at the RDS they beat Stade Francais, but since then have won only against Italian sides, or the Dragons, and now Edinburgh. The win over Stade was no fork in the road. Rather they have settled into a pattern of losing the big games, while Leinster have won enough to keep Foley in the crosshairs rather than Cullen.
Of course the Leinster coach has a bit more of everything to play with than his Munster counterpart. And Erasmus, you would imagine, has been busy identifying the shortcomings he is about to inherit.
The South African's personality suggests he won't be slow about coming forward. Well, maybe with the media he will. The former flanker has a bank of experience between the Cheetahs, Stormers and Springboks - where he was a technical advisor for the 2011 World Cup - but he was happier innovating behind the scenes. He is viewed in South Africa in the same league as Brendan Venter when it comes to power of will and rugby intellect. A colleague of his texted us last week with the following message: 'Rassie won't take any shit from Axel (Foley).'
We think he won't have to. It is inconceivable that Foley can pick up with Erasmus where he left off with Rob Penney: angling for the top job. A home bird whose entire playing and coaching career has never taken him more than a short drive from Killaloe, Foley is powerless now. So suck it up or ship out - a move which surely could only help him develop as a coach.
In his wake Erasmus will have to address some key issues, only one of which will be in his immediate control: selecting the coaching and playing teams, and their approach. That's the easy part. His timing is good in so far as the craziness that attended Munster's dual training arrangement will end just after he arrives. There is residual resentment in Cork that officially they have been relegated to secondary status. CIT had their eye wiped by UL where, in August, Erasmus will be able to park himself in a brand new three-storey building containing pretty much everything a professional operation needs. Critically, indoor and outdoor facilities are next door. Great.
The uphill climb, however, involves a combination of things that have been dragging Munster under. "Arseways," was the adjective used to us last week by a former Munster employee when describing the policy on player recruitment.
It will be hard enough to attract fresh talent to this country given the degree to which we have been left behind by England and France in the financial stakes. Harder still if there is little prospect of winning anything.
That puts a premium on results, which - because this is not football - still relies largely on homegrown talent, perhaps the darkest corner in Munster's house. Their predicament is exacerbated by the stream of light flooding into Leinster. In roughly the last 10 years, in and around Dublin, there has been an explosion in the numbers of potential pros coming from what you could call the middle-order schools. Munster are static by comparison.
They are not in the business of school building, so they'd better ramp up their input into the eight institutions which currently make up the first-choice pack, as well as developing the game beyond them. As for the youth game in their clubs, this should be the focus of an all-out blitz.
This will take human and financial resources, an issue not unique to Munster. Saddled with losses of circa €2m, however, and annual repayments on Thomond Park, this put them in a different ballpark to Leinster, for example, who expect to return a loss of around €100k this year.
So last week's meeting of the IRFU committee was especially important. The good news for all four provinces is that head office will lob each of them an extra €500k this year, and the same again in 2017. And for Munster in particular, more help is coming. "The union are very understanding of our problems," a senior source there said to us on Friday.
An IRFU spokesman confirmed the same day that Munster have been asked for a financial plan as soon as the loss for this season is clear. The inference being drawn down south is that a cheque will be written at that point.
Where that leaves them with the debt on Thomond Park is another issue. They have until January 2019 to buy out the IRFU interest in the stadium, which clearly puts them under pressure to catch up. This in turn will keep the heat on their commercial committee to haul in more cash.
Depending on who you talk to down there you'll get a wildly differing assessment of how Munster have managed to milk the corporates. One man says they're not at the races, another maintains they're well ahead of budget this season.
In November 2008 Munster, who earlier in the year had won their second Heineken Cup in three seasons, took on the All Blacks on a bitterly cold night where there was enough electricity to keep everyone charged. Plugging in commercially to the Munster brand at that point must have seemed one of the most attractive connections in world rugby. It is far removed from that now. And much of what has gone wrong has been of their own making.
As we squeezed out of the press box in the Millennium in 2008, Munster were the be-all and end-all, the only show in town. They are struggling for an audience now. The hard sell is only starting.
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