Tuesday 16 July 2019

Munster sent a message to their stakeholders that it's ok to juice if you're prepared to face the music if caught red-handed

Gerbrandt Grobler in training for Munster. Photo: Sportsfile
Gerbrandt Grobler in training for Munster. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In the minutes before Munster played Ospreys in Irish Independent Park in early December, a clutch of their extras were making their way along the walkway in front of the new stand, mingling with supporters as they went. One of them could best be described as a lighthouse. He had the vertical dimensions of an NBA star, but with the horizontal scale to match.

"Sweet Jesus, who's yer man?" we asked of one of Munster's backroom team.

"Oh that's Gerbrandt. I know, he's massive isn't he?"

The truth was that we had forgotten about him. It's easy to lose track of the South African contingent in Munster, especially if the individual concerned hadn't laced a boot since the pre-season friendly against Worcester.

Grobler was signed from Racing, today's opponents, during the summer on a one-year deal to fill the hole left by Donnacha Ryan, who coincidentally was also struggling for fitness at the club Grobler had just left.

Whatever, Grobler wouldn't have been signed if Munster had been able to extricate Tadhg Beirne from Scarlets, but that won't happen until this summer. So Munster needed a big lump of a man to fill the gap, not a potentially big lump. How much internal debate ensued over Grobler's history is moot: they signed a player who had tested positive for steroid abuse in 2014 and had served a two-year ban.

It was interesting that Grobler held his hand up at the time of the positive test. He didn't claim he had been walking along the shoreline of Cape Town's Camps Bay when he happened across this wondrous seaweed with properties like you wouldn't believe. Maybe it didn't seem like he needed to go down that route, for in South Africa the culture of drug abuse in sport is different to here. Like gouging for French and Argentine rugby players, it's not as culturally abhorrent.

Judging by the comments of current coach Johann van Graan - the hiring of Grobler was done on Rassie Erasmus's watch - Grobler had recognised his mistake, served his punishment and is entitled to move on. And he's right. The problem is that selling sport is mostly about asking people to invest in the dream factory. The business side of that is that you're building a brand.

This was the rationale that Leinster used when ditching Matt O'Connor as head coach in 2015. O'Connor's record of a Pro12 title and two qualifications for the knockout stages of Europe was a pretty decent return for two years' work. The second had ended after extra-time, in Marseilles, to holders Toulon, who were en route to a three-in-a-row. Except that Leinster had been cut adrift in the Pro12 in that second season and the decision-makers couldn't see that improving on O'Connor's watch. So to protect the brand, they turfed him.

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In hiring Grobler - who made his comeback for the 'A' team in Nottingham on Friday night - Munster sent a message to their stakeholders that it's ok to juice if you're prepared to face the music if caught red-handed. And that's a dodgy sales pitch.

You'd imagine they've thought all this through. Equally, Munster's Professional Game Board must have sat down and tried to figure out the impact on their brand by shopping so heavily in South Africa for players and coaches. For sure it's a buyers' market there, for between that country's love of rugby and the limited potential for its white players, because of positive discrimination, there are rich pickings.

The dilemma for Munster is how to balance the composition of their set-up. At what point does it stop being about a largely home-produced squad with an emotional bond to its community and more about any other professional outfit whose sole criterion is assembling the best available athletes you can buy? This is not a mathematical exercise. It's about what feels right.

And for Munster to confirm last week the recruitment of two South Africans to their Academy doesn't tick that box. Let's join a few dots here. Tighthead prop Seán Citizen in, say, Nenagh Ormond, is a strapping 18-year-old who is good enough to play for his club in AIL Division 2A. His target is the Munster Academy. Then out of nowhere a South African star lands to earth in Limerick. No place for Seán. So his da tells him they'll get an agent. Same agent looks across the water and gets him a spot in a Premiership club's programme. One thing leads to another and his career takes off over there.

Fast forward a few years to 2021 when the Lions are touring South Africa - with a healthy contingent of Irish props on board - and Ireland are touring a Tier 2 nation, but there is an injury crisis in the front-row. So Seán calls up the Ireland coach and says: 'Remember me?'

The coach might well remember him, but there is a well-explained and understood policy of picking Ireland only players in the Irish system. The reality however is that Seán Citizen didn't leave the Irish system, the Irish system left him. It is unclear if IRFU policy now is to supplement their thriving Exiles programme with recruitment from overseas of Academy players unconnected with this country.

Of course if he was that promising, and if his progress across the water was that good, he'd have been monitored, and you'd think a place could be found over here. But Munster's experience with Tadhg Beirne illustrates that you can't just click your fingers and the wild geese fly home the following morning.

We don't know if there are any youngsters in Munster looking at the arrival of the two new Academy lads and wondering why they should bother. If the landscape there is so barren, then fine. But that's not what we've been hearing. In which case, like the recruitment of Gerbrandt Grobler, it's a hard sell to the brave and the faithful. Or dapper en lojaal as they might say in South Africa.

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