Sunday 22 July 2018

Munster must take risks to get out of the slow lane

Munster players after conceding their third try against Connacht last weekend Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Munster players after conceding their third try against Connacht last weekend Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

At a packed and sold-out Galway Sportsground for the Connacht versus Munster match, two Munster supporters were apprehended climbing over the wall - gardaí caught them and returned them to watch the second half . . .

In 2003, England won the Grand Slam and later on that year they won the World Cup. They were the best team on the planet that year. One month ago they won their first Grand Slam in 13 years. That was a long, long wait. Winning the World Cup - well it was for them almost the start of a 1,000-year Reich. They were going to dominate the world. England were decent this year but there is no camouflaging the shocking ordinariness of their opposition. England now have a good coach and across the park they did have quality - but what had they been doing for those 13 years? I am sure it is contained in a report somewhere.

In 2008, Munster won their second Heineken Cup. They won it with a very good side and ironically disposed of Saracens and Wasps en route to dispatching Toulouse in the final. Saracens and Wasps contend for a place in this year's final on Saturday. Circle of life and all that.

Munster in all probability will meet one of these Premiership high flyers - most probably Saracens again - if they actually do qualify for the Champions Cup. There is no guarantee that the 33-10 humiliation heaped on them in 2015 will not be improved on by a confident and burgeoning Saracens side.

2008 seems like a long time ago now and Munster's decline although initially imperceptible is certain now. You cannot win every season and so you get moved out of the fast lane as other teams with momentum and ambition come up behind you. Munster are now in the bus lane and if they don't take corrective action soon will be pedalling along the cycle path.

There were many aspects of last week's game that confirmed that Munster will walk for 40 years in the desert and the final play of the game told its own story.

I watched a documentary a while back on National Geographic about two young lions taking over the pride of an older dominant lion. The younger lions outmanoeuvred the older male and eventually killed him in a fight. When it was all over one of the younger lions came over to the carcass, sniffed it and then pissed all over him - the final humiliation.

Humiliation

The final play of the game last Saturday and Connacht were awarded a kickable penalty just outside the 22. The game clock was well into red. The bonus point was in the bag. It had been a great day - why not just end the agony and kick the ball dead and celebrate? Well no!

Leinster were on top of the league on points difference. Every point may count at the end of the regular season. Leinster play a tough game in Ulster - Connacht go hunting for tries and bonus points in Treviso. Take the kick - three points could be the difference. I did think though that there was an element of ritual humiliation about it all.

Munster were dead and buried but 'here is something for you' after all those thumpings over the years - just to rub it in a little bit more. Shane O'Leary seemed to take an age with the kick - was it concentration or recrimination? The camera panned around at the sullen and dejected Munster players. Empty vessels! The kick was converted and the extra three points for a 21-point thumping was the cherry on the top.

How did it come to this? How do we know that it won't get worse in Cork? Edinburgh are at best a tricky side. Tricky is good enough to undo Munster these days.

I remember seeing an ad for Chase Manhattan bank years ago - it read: "A reminder to anyone spending like there is no tomorrow - there is a tomorrow." For Munster, tomorrow has arrived. There is no such thing as succession planning in sport. Just ask Alex Ferguson. After a fertile eight-year period from 2000 Munster's cupboard is bare and they are in a state of inertia.

They no longer have a pack that can dominate, bully or plot a course against their opponents. They no longer have a core of clever, experienced players in the key positions who can think their way through a game. They do not have the fallback or the culture to play the continuous expansive game that other sides have adapted or adopted - Glasgow and Connacht being the prime examples. The apocalyptic post-O'Connell period that the prophets forecast has come to pass. The orchestra play on but the conductor has left the stand.

We knew that O'Connell was the glue that kept the whole thing together. It was unrealistic in the extreme to think that whoever took over would come remotely close to giving the sort of leadership he so brilliantly gave over 14 years. Are we to say that the legacy of the 2000-'08 Munster teams is what is happening to the current Munster side? So many iconic players - but it is so often the case that when they finish there is no quality to back them up.

Identity

The flaw is that there is no leadership within the team. Munster's international contingent are good standard international players but out of Zebo, Earls, Murray, Ryan and Stander - just how good are they on the talking and thinking front?

Stander as captain is more than a handy player - but is he the man to work a team that at this moment in time has very little identity? What I mean by that is that there is very little connection with the great Munster side of 2000-2008. They also have no real definitive path to follow for their future.

Sure you can sack the coach - but make sure that you replace him with somebody better. There must be a number of coaches out there that are better than Anthony Foley. The trick though is getting just one of them to come. If you were a promising coach on the up or a proven experienced coach - would you, in your right mind go to Munster when you see where they are in the current cycle?

You talk to Tony McGahan, Rob Penney and Anthony Foley and ask them what fun it is. Munster have invested badly in the players they have bought. In the good times it was easy - there were Doug Howletts and Jim Williamses falling out of the sky.

This is compounded by the dearth of players rolling off their conveyor belt from the schools. In the last dozen years nearly every inter-pro series at schools, youths and U-20s levels has been won by Leinster. All the representative sides have been stacked with Leinster representative players with Munster players playing bit parts. In recent years more and more Connacht players have been selected on representative teams - it's not all down to Nigel Carolan. Connacht's academy is working - look at their players coming through.

Munster's schools are not as compliant as Leinster's or Ulster's and the flow of quality or quantity would not be even close to being as strong as theirs. If you can't find players or buy players this will really hurt you and so you either wait until a crop or glut of superstar players comes along all at once as they did in 2000-2008 - or you go and do something about it.

Peter O'Mahony's return may help things in the short term. It is imperative that Munster qualify for the Champions Cup and I suspect they will do just enough to achieve that.

Once that objective is attained they need to plan for the next five years and be prepared to take a few risks to invest in their future. They would also pretty much straight away learn how to win matches that are well within their compass to do so - starting against Edinburgh.

Irish Independent

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