I was talking to quite a few Munster supporters throughout the week. Perplexing conundrums. They haven't worked it out yet and the answer to a lot of their vexations lies in the questions that they have been asking. Ulster, they maintained, were on the cynical side of crafty. 'They killed our good ball, wouldn't roll away, hands everywhere. Ref did nuttin' about it.'
Times were when you walked into the junkyard, the junkyard dog sank its teeth into the flabby folds of flesh on your buttocks and wouldn't let go until the owner came out of his cabin. Time was when sticking your arm over the other side of the ruck to slow ball down was like bobbing for piranhas when you played at Thomond. Chris Henry, who had a sensational game, spent 70 minutes plying a retardant buffer on proceedings at the breakdown. He left the field with a clear, unblemished facial complexion and his jersey was neither torn nor pock-marked with a studded impression. He got away with murder -- or more succinctly he was let get away with murder.
Tony McGahan is unquestionably a quality coach -- he knows his stuff, but under his stewardship he has tried to sanitise certain parts of the way Munster play their game. It hasn't worked. The junkyard dog is gone and it is incumbent on the people charged with responsibility for Munster's affairs to bring it back.
Declan Kidney realised after his 2006 Heineken Cup triumph that the type of game that succeeded in that campaign, that culminated in the victory against Biarritz, would not be sufficient to enable them to become multiple winners of the competition. The game was evolving. Munster had to evolve too. And so, the type of game that they played in the successful 2008 campaign was different -- not radically -- but it was perceptible even to the uneducated eye.
Munster had to add an extra dimension to their game, be more fluid, use their three-quarter line, width of their outside backs as opposed to depth of their forward runners. It was important to do so without compromising the fundamentals of their forward-dominated game. Kidney realised that once Munster were matched up front, they found it almost impossible to win.
Leinster consistently win games when their pack are under the cosh. That's why he moved their game on a bit and he successfully got the balance right before he moved on to a higher calling.
McGahan's departure, signalled earlier in the year, has not helped his team. They are not playing well at the moment, primarily because they are still not sure what type of game to play. The most important thing to do now is pick the right coach for next season. They are in serious trouble if they choose the wrong man.
I saw, with a tinge of amusement, that Ian McGeechan and Martin Haag were given the Ruud Gullit by Bath CEO Nick Blofeld. Normally when somebody called Blofeld is terminating contracts there are trap door chairs and shark tanks involved.
McGeechan, now that he is on the market, will almost certainly have his name connected to the vacancy. That would be a mistake, as would that of Wayne Smith or any other southern hemisphere candidate. Tony McGahan's win/loss ratio is pretty good, but I'm sure that if Mahatma Gandhi coached the side he too would have a pretty good win/loss ratio.
Munster's heritage and pedigree guarantee that they will win a high percentage of their fixtures throughout the season no matter who is in charge. Alan Gaffney, too, had a reasonable
win/loss ratio like McGahan, but I don't think either was capable of taking them to the next level without losing their soul.
If Joe Schmidt was available to coach Munster, I don't think he would be a good fit. The type of game that Schmidt espouses is perfectly matched to the way Leinster and their roster think. They also have been lucky to have Jonno Gibbes, whose contribution has been underestimated.
Munster have performed best when they have been coached by someone who really understands. In many ways, Anthony Foley is the least qualified and the coach with the lightest CV, but he is the best choice for the job. He mightn't win anything next year but you'd back him to get back to the summit within three years and in the interim redefine the potency and single-mindedness which is not currently being demonstrated by the team as a whole.
Whoever comes in has a myriad of problems to overcome. I'm not privy to the internal machinations or the policies of the team but it is obvious that the squad have an unhealthy reliance on Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara.
It is also obvious to me that both of these players have a massive say in what happens on and off the pitch. Player power is good, but sometimes a coach's authority can be strangled by having a duopoly in situ that can veto, change or water down what you are trying to do.
Coaching by consultation or compromise is going to get you nowhere. Munster's totems run their dressing room. Sometimes it's a boon, other times it's not. If Foley gets in, it will be a difficult thing to sort out because he has played with both of them. A grand alliance just isn't going to work.
Munster too must recognise their difficulties and problems; some real, some imaginary. Their roster needs supplementing and their hunt for a cutting edge is of pressing importance.
Munster had no real constant cutting edge this season because Doug Howlett, their most important player behind O'Connell and O'Gara, picked up a long-term injury. If you look back over all of Munster's important tries, Howlett either scored them or was the architect of them, even starting from a simple pass. He always does the right thing in the right place at the right time. Even if he has lost five yards of pace, he is still quicker than anyone in the Munster backline.
Defensively he is special, he saves the Munster try line once or twice a game and his tackling is direct and forceful. Munster people might have discounted his absence; he wields enormous influence in every sphere. Craig Gilroy would have been put into the advertising hoardings if he'd had the cheek to try and take Howlett on the outside.
Paul Warwick, too, was a big loss. Players come, players go, and Munster could have and should have held on to him. He thought quicker and made the right choices and he scored points at vital times. Howlett will recover, Warwick won't be back even though he is wasted at Stade. If both of them had been on the field last Sunday, Munster, even though they were a long way off knowing how to take advantage of 79 per cent field position and 71 per cent possession, would have won.
In the short term (two years or so) they would have contributed positively to Munster's lack of efficiency out wide. It is something I'm not sure that James Downey or Casey Laulala will do. I have watched both in the last few years -- short-termers and bad buys. Downey had a truncated spell at Munster. There is a reason for that: he wasn't good enough. To suggest that he has improved as a player at Northampton doesn't stand up to any sort of scrutiny. The Heineken final last year against Leinster and the pool matches against Munster themselves said it all.
Laulala, sensational against sides like Benetton Treviso, disappears for the big games. All Munster are doing is swapping Mafi for another Mafi-type player. I'd also check his birth cert; he's been around a long time.
Munster might be sniffing around Leinster's Ian Madigan but I'm not sure if he is a good fit for them or whether he'd go, or be let go. Matt Berquist would be a handy acquisition.
Tinkering with acquisitions in Munster's midfield isn't where they need to be splashing the cash. Over the years Munster have won all their big matches on the back of an outstanding back row, we don't need to name them, we all know who they are. They are all but gone now. Leamy, who still has much to contribute when he gets back from injury, was another grievous loss.
Coughlan has been Munster's best back-row player for a season or two now but will be 32 in
December. His recent prominence belies the fact that he spent six seasons plying his trade for Dolphin in the AIL. Some people assume that he is a young fella just out of the academy.
Neither Tommy O'Donnell nor Dave O'Callaghan impressed in their recent showings. They could mature in time, but if Munster were going to splash the cash they should go out and buy two big names at six and eight. Break the bank for two superior operators and leaders.
They have the problem that their roster is full with overseas non-qualified. They had to use up two picks to bolster their scrum. (No one coming through.) If they look at the Leinster and Ulster games in the last fortnight, they were completely outclassed in the back row on both occasions. Unless
they address this on a short-term and long-term basis, they will be spending time pondering over more fallow seasons.
Those two games at the business end of the season said it all. Tactically to line-break once with 71 per cent possession and mentally to miss 10 out of 59 tackles (85 per cent) is completely unsatisfactory. Recognition too that sides like Ulster among others are no longer afraid of them or of going to play in Thomond.
Expectation within and without the organisation is their biggest problem. They can't win it every year but are almost expected to.
President Obama keeps the printing presses of the Fed rolling. It is not politically expedient or popular to go through a recession so he postpones by engaging in quantitative easing. It will eventually be America's undoing.
It's not good for Munster to be enduring their recession. They can quick-fix it, just like Obama. It means, though, that there won't be a generic solution to their problem, but they can see their way out of their current problems.
The first step is picking a coach who fits and understands the psyche. The second is giving him time, which could prove more difficult.
Neil Francis and Ray D'Arcy will team up as Leinster take on Munster's Matt Cooper and Frankie Sheahan in a tandem bicycle race around St Stephen's Green on Friady April 27 to raise desperately needed funds for a young man who could do with some help at this time. All contributions gratefull accepted at marcowensmedicalfund.com
Sunday Indo Sport