Saturday 21 April 2018

Tony Ward: Munster decision is a recipe for disaster - and Anthony Foley should head for the hills

Munster head coach Anthony Foley during yesterday's press conference in Limerick Photo: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Rassie Erasmus is an interesting and well-qualified choice as Munster's first director of rugby - and credit to the province for confirming the appointment so promptly - but much about this decision still confuses me.

If I were Anthony Foley I'd already be over the hills and far away.

According to CEO Garrett Fitzgerald, former Springbok flanker Erasmus will "lead Munster's senior team, academy and coaches to deliver Munster's Strategic Plan with ultimate responsibility for team performance and results. The role will have overall responsibility for defining on field strategy and ensuring its implementation".

To me that is sure-fire indication that the director of rugby will essentially be head coach, and current head coach Foley will be his assistant.

So the Reds will have two main coaches, both former forwards - albeit great forwards - yet Munster are crying out for a specialist skills/attacking/backs coach and have been for some time.

The fact that the CEO and current head coach appear to be singing off different pages suggests imminent 'trouble at mill', as does Fitzgerald's statement that "there has been no decision made on how many coaches Erasmus will have around him next season, ultimately it is our decision".

If that isn't an immediate recipe for disaster, then I don't know what is - although apparently a new defensive coach, in Jacques Nienaber, is already on the way.

It should be up to Erasmus, given this all-encompassing position of responsibility, to appoint who he wants. The emphasis on it being "ultimately our decision" - our being Munster's Professional Games Committee - is disconcerting to say the least.

Munster head coach Anthony Foley.

I feel really sorry for Foley because he and his management team are being hung out to dry, although collectively they have underperformed to the point of no return. The writing is on the wall.

If Munster have problems, one consolation is that things could be a lot worse - they could be Italian.

I supported the extension of Five Nations Rugby to Six at the turn of the Millennium, but the time has come for a radical rethink.

When the Italians were admitted to the Six Nations, it was an upgrade well earned. The late '90s had been a golden era for Italian rugby. In three of their first four official internationals against Ireland, victory went to the Azzurri.

Home internationals are now played at the Stadio Olimpico (in place of the smaller Stadio Flaminio), and the ground is usually almost full to its 70,000 capacity. But there the fairytale ends.

Aside from Sergio Parisse, It's difficult to name an Italian player of substantial note. And even then, their national side and Pro12 teams are less than the sum of their parts.

I want to see Italian rugby succeed, but what is the point when year upon year the Azzurri finish bottom (occasionally second from bottom) in the Six Nations with their clubs 11th and 12th in the Pro12, and distort their European pool?

Something's got to give and I'm not sure promotion and relegation to the Six Nations is the answer.

Having a relegation play-off between the bottom team in the Six Nations and the top team in the European Nations Cup - Georgia for the last six years - is a no-brainer but where is the guarantee that the winner will be good enough to beat the fifth-placed team in the season that follows?

Five strong teams and one weak (going up and down like a yoyo) would serve little purpose.

Six Nations Rugby has no stomach to change the current status of the competition but I suspect the time is fast approaching when TV companies will.

And in the Pro12, it must be soul-destroying for the Italian players to take a near-guaranteed thumping every week in front of half-empty stadiums? And to what end? Quite how the rights holders haven't called a halt before now is a miracle.

I don't have a quick fix solution. It's frustrating because Italy should be the European equivalent of Argentina, and they are anything but.

Tonight, Conor O’Shea welcomes Bernard Jackman’s Grenoble to Harlequins’ Stoop. Photo: PA

I admire Conor O'Shea (above) and Steve Aboud (the new elite youth performance director) for taking on the Italian job - although I wish O'Shea was heading to Munster. He said recently that he was never approached. What would it have taken for a discreet enquiry?

Should O'Shea succeed where so many others have failed, the Pro12, EPCR and Six Nations Rugbywill all benefit hugely.

Any organisation or team is only as strong as its weakest link and for some time now Italian rugby has been that weakest link.

It would appear from the outside that Treviso and Zebre are backboned by professional journeymen from afar. The challenge is to put much more efficient structures in place.

But for now the target for Connacht and Leinster, as well as Glasgow - the only other realistic challenger in the race for home semi-finals - is to exploit Italian weakness to the full.

Glasgow at home to Zebre next weekend and Leinster in the RDS to Treviso on the last day look like guaranteed five-pointers.

Connacht will no doubt face a stiffer challenge in Treviso on Saturday but should come away with maximum points - and that despite the fact that Zebre and Treviso are supposedly battling for a Champions Cup place, with just three points separating them at the basement.

Maybe it's the cynic in me, but why do I suspect a Challenge Cup place is not the glittering prize for them that it is for our provinces?

On the plus side for O'Shea and Aboud, the only way is up. Italian rugby can hardly go any lower than a second Wooden Spoon in three years, with painfully heavy defeats in the last two matches to Ireland (58-15) and Wales (67-14).

O'Shea's capture is timely, with Munster's loss most definitely Italy's gain.

Irish Independent

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