Wednesday 13 December 2017

Munster's troubles run a lot deeper than Foley's struggles in the hot-seat

CJ Stander's accusation about not putting bodies on the line sums up level of misery in Reds' squad

Munster's Billy Holland following his side's defeat yesterday Photo:Sportsfile
Munster's Billy Holland following his side's defeat yesterday Photo:Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If you get a chance to catch up with CJ Stander's post-match television interview in Paris last night then take it.

His modus operandi in these situations is not a lot different from other captains of losing teams: just say it's all very disappointing, and repeat the message regardless of the question.

Stander was on course with that when he was pushed on the issue of the Pro12 versus Europe: in Munster's case, getting into a lather about rugby's bread and butter competition is like big GAA counties celebrating the National League above the All-Ireland.

It was at that point Stander, wittingly or otherwise, lifted the lid a bit on how low Munster are just now.

"I can't say we have to learn because it's the same stuff from last year," he said with a sigh. "We can play - we know what to do, but we don't do it on the pitch. We do it on the training pitch . . . we're not putting bodies on the line."

The minutes immediately after a game are what we refer to in this business as the fertile period, that time when you're most likely to pick up a good quote rather than one prepared in the PR department. Stander's interview wasn't gold medal stuff in this category, but it was candid enough in revealing the level of misery in the squad. And he finished with a perfectly apposite line in reference to next weekend, when Stade come to Thomond Park.

"Hopefully the fans pitch up," he said. "We need the support now."

Never in the history of Munster's European campaigns have they put together three defeats on the trot. And never has a Munster captain had to appeal for their supporters to stick with them.

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He was followed by Anthony Foley, who understandably looked like he would sooner have submitted to root canal work then a television interview with a man who surely was getting voices in his ear about asking hard questions. Foley was in no mood to be answering questions.

His position now is acutely uncomfortable, as is that of his chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald.

As reported on a couple of weeks ago, Foley is in line for a one-year contract extension - which represents both parties exercising the option on his original two-year deal.

It is inescapable that Foley's boss will spend that period looking at a replacement, but Fitzgerald has been around the traps long enough to know that Munster's problems run a lot deeper than one of their greatest ever players struggling big time as their coach.

Some of this is outside Fitzgerald's control. The arrival of IRFU rugby director David Nucifora has put some backbone into the union's policy of growing enough greens to feed the international team. So even if he had deep pools of cash - which he doesn't - the chief executive can't comb the globe picking up star players.

Firstly he will be outbid by French clubs - and with the salary cap shift in England they too are wading in like heavyweights - and secondly he can't point to his team as a place where players should come to win medals.

In fairness to Munster, their last three big recruits all looked like good business: Tyler Bleyendaal, Francis Saili and Mark Chisholm. Bleyendaal's injury issues started before he arrived and haven't gone away since he landed last year. Saili is a very good rugby player who looks like he needs to be playing in a good team to really shine, and that ain't Munster. And Chisholm is a fine athlete who is having very little positive effect. There was a moment in last night's game when a decent enough dart from Mike Sherry just slipped through the second-row's fingers and you could almost hear the groans of despair from the coaches' bench. Factor in crises at tighthead and outhalf and you get the picture.

The other factor militating against Munster's revival is the key difference between them and Leinster: demographics. Leinster are much better positioned to feed through local players because they have a clatter of them. The south by comparison is smalltime. And it's compounded by lots of lads having upped and left for the east coast, or further afield.

So the background doesn't have much colour in it. As for the foregound, Munster have a team of coaches who are very short on experience dealing with a squad who are equally short on confidence. Stander will pray his involvement with his adopted country develops under Joe Schmidt - and gives him a break from the day job.

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