Thursday 17 October 2019

Not a great time for Munster to be out head-hunting

The departures of Flannery and Jones have left big gaps, writes Brendan Fanning

Departing Munster forwards coach Jerry Flannery and backline and attack coach Felix Jones. Photo: Sportsfile
Departing Munster forwards coach Jerry Flannery and backline and attack coach Felix Jones. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

A week ago, we were speaking to a man about the moving parts in the machine that is Munster Rugby. Specifically about the bits at the heart of the operation. He mentioned two persons of interest to fill the role of attack coach if per chance it became vacant: Rob Howley, who in roughly five months will be late of Wales, and an unnamed coach currently earning his corn in the English Premiership. Very soon after that conversation, Howley's name was in the public domain. And before you could say: 'That must be a bit awkward for Felix Jones,' there was a gap on the coaching roster where Jones used to be. And another one where Jerry Flannery was hanging his hat.

This is like a scene from one of those special forces reality tv shows where suddenly someone has put a smelly sack over your head and you're being frogmarched out in the snow. Whatever happens next is not going to be good.

Last week, Leinster were announcing extra seats being stuffed into the RDS for Saturday's Pro14 semi-final meeting with Munster. Their opponents were announcing the disintegration of their coaching roster.

The statements by Jones and Flannery that they were folding their tents does not mean automatically that they were sharing the same canvas, but clearly they have been on the same campsite. The Flannery departure caught everyone cold, not least because the forward pack is not what is holding Munster back. As for Jones, once Howley's name was in the public domain there was going to be movement in some shape or form. Which is more than you could say about their attack.

Maybe the fact that the team have been so competitive over the last three seasons has discouraged dealing with the obvious: they are a blunt instrument. Munster have been semi-finalists in the Champions Cup for the last three campaigns. Saracens, Toulouse, Clermont and Racing couldn't do it, but Munster and Leinster did. Clearly they are doing something right.

The last four of that competition is the great test for European clubs, however. If there was a theme to Munster's inability to close those sales it was that their presentation fell down when it came to the quality of the creative. This was recognised among some in the group, but still nothing happened.

Johann van Graan
Johann van Graan

Recurring with equal frequency is the line that it's evolving, and that it's not like turning on a tap. Well, Rob Penney didn't seem to think so. He won't be remembered as having successfully reinvented Munster's wheel but very soon after he arrived in 2012 to succeed Tony McGahan he was changing its shape. It wasn't long before players were gushing about the width they were putting on their game in training, and couldn't wait to road-test it on match day.

Significantly, neither Ronan O'Gara nor Paul O'Connell were keen advocates for change at the time, but Penney cracked on anyway. He talked then about adding layers as they went, and that he needed three seasons to nail it down. After two he still hadn't got the balance right between width and directness - a second playmaker instead of a ball-carrying 12 would have helped - and Munster were too easy to defend. Penney dropped.

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So how is it that since then Munster have been through Anthony Foley, Rassie Erasmus and Johann van Graan, and still you hear about the development of their attack shape being a slow burner? You'd catch fire in a monsoon quicker. The extension of that line this season is that their progress has been hobbled by the injury to Joey Carbery. What started out as a masterplan - his move from Leinster to Munster in search of game time at 10 - has fallen apart, torn by his hamstring. It scuppered his Six Nations and reduced his Munster involvement to 36 minutes since January.

Yes, in the way that Carbery has been a great addition to Munster then so has his recent absence been a loss. But even when he was settling in and bringing value he was operating under the yoke that was Munster's slavish system. It's an insult to Tyler Bleyendaal and JJ Hanrahan that only Carbery could push the buttons. In this case it's not about the player. Rather, it's about the coach.

When Penney left for Japan, Munster went back to the system that had won them two European titles. That was what Foley wanted, even though it had stopped working before Penney arrived. When it wasn't working under Foley they brought in Erasmus. He went down a similar road, but harder. Then came Van Graan, and again Munster have been competitive up to a point - one which satisfies neither squad nor supporters. Clearly he was happy to stick with the same personnel, but wanted to bring in yet more coaching help.

For Felix Jones it's understood this would have involved a change in job title - and input. So he would have been learning from someone new rather than calling the shots. Maybe that didn't appeal to him, but when Van Graan went public before the Saracens game about adding to the coaching team, at which point Jones and Flannery hadn't signed their new contracts, which offered more cash, the head coach must have been very confident his assistants weren't about to jump. This is May, after all. Eh, Van Graan did give the lads a heads up, didn't he?

Then Howley's name was leaked and everyone was talking about how it would affect Jones. With a young family to provide for you'd imagine he didn't knock Munster back without having another offer on the table, but that may well be the case. A hard-working, intense young man (32 in August) Jones won't lack for effort wherever he goes next, but neither will he be able to point to a solid bank of achievement in the job he is just leaving.

Jerry Flannery is in a different boat. He has seen a wee bit more of the world and has business interests that he could pursue, but at 40 his coaching days are also just beginning and it doesn't seem like he's ready to change direction just yet. He threw himself into the Munster job and was frustrated at the lack of silverware, but he too was valued and could have stayed on a better deal. Yet he has decided to walk.

This turn of events puts Van Graan in an acutely difficult position. It does the opposite for whoever he is talking to as replacements, for this is the equivalent of starting your Christmas shopping around tea time on December 24. You'd expect in this situation that he would dial the international code 0027, for South Africa has coaches lining up to get out. Their quality is another issue.

Then there is the prospect of Howley, or luring someone from the Premiership. The jackpot would be to pick up Stephen Larkham, freed by the Wallabies three months ago, whose profile alone would induce some calm among the Brave and the Faithful. But Larkham's role with the ARU extends beyond the Wallabies (he is involved with their under 20s and sevens) and the line is that he'll bounce into the top job when Michael Cheika goes after the World Cup.

Filling the hole left by Flannery however, will require earth-moving equipment. The paucity of Munster's attack has been highlighted by the power of their pack. No one reckoned on having to replace him. Not a great time to be trying to fill a hole. Worse to be filling two.

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