Saturday 24 February 2018

Provinces at the crossroads

Anthony Foley is now stalking the training field like the head honcho, but Munster need to make early progress in finding a replacement for Simon Mannix
Anthony Foley is now stalking the training field like the head honcho, but Munster need to make early progress in finding a replacement for Simon Mannix
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The last campaign in Europe as we know it has just ended for two of Ireland's three frontline provinces, and is long over for the fourth. Brendan Fanning assesses the prospects for the quartet – on the pitch, on the sideline and in the boardroom – for the rest of this season and for the medium to long term as the European rugby landscape looks set to undergo some seismic changes

MUNSTER

The scarcely credible stat from Europe's anchor tenant is that in a fortnight Munster will contest their 11th Heineken Cup semi-final in 18 seasons, one more than Toulouse who still lead the trophy collection with four. Without stretching the point, European rugby would be minus much of its drama, colour and quality were it not for Munster.

As with last season, they will go into the semi-final as such clear underdogs that the only advantage they will bring to Marseilles, a new venue for them, will be their pedigree – which is beyond question. And as with the gripping contest against Clermont in Montpellier last season, that becomes an issue if the game is still alive going to the last.

How are they fixed now?

On the face of it well enough, given they are on course for another knockout finish to the Pro12, and in Europe have come through their pool, winning five of six games before beating Toulouse out the gate in the quarter-final. Not so well however if you factor in the loss of captain Peter O'Mahony. Notwithstanding CJ Stander's powerful performance off the bench last weekend, O'Mahony is hugely important to this team. At least Casey Laulala, the other casualty from that rout, will almost certainly be fit.

Munster have a tricky run-in to the Pro12 with games away to Connacht and Edinburgh, and then home to Ulster, but it would be a stunning collapse if they fell off the podium for a home draw in the knockouts. Offered this at the start of the season, they'd have paid over the odds for it.

Parts to be replaced

Casey Laulala: Off to France, and did well after recovering from a spell last season when Rob Penney seemed to rate him surplus to requirements.

James Downey: Likely to wind up his career in France as well. They got good value from him, and it would have been better if they signed him first time, before he went to Italy, and then Northampton.

Rob Penney and Simon Mannix: The first part is already sorted with Anthony Foley now stalking the training field like the head honcho. As for the second – replacing Mannix who is off to Pau – we understand Foley has been turned down already by Franco Smith, who contributed so much for so long with Treviso, and former Munster stalwart Jason Holland, so there needs to be some progress on that issue soon. It seems Eric Elwood is one of those now on the shortlist. Moreover, Con coach Mick O'Driscoll has been signed up for a technical role that will extend beyond the senior side.

Projection

Munster have managed to remain competitive through a transition which started in earnest in 2010, but still their squad doesn't have the sort of depth for them to chase European titles with confidence. If you watched their 'A' team being annihilated in Donnybrook last weekend, you'd say their back-up is so far back as to be out of sight.

 

ULSTER

Between coaches Harry Williams, Alan Solomons, Mark McCall and Matt Williams, Ulster spent 11 straight seasons floundering in the pools of Europe. Then in 2010/'11, under Brian McLaughlin, at last they got into the quarter-finals, where they found the going too tough against Northampton. Successive qualifications in the next three seasons took them to a final and two quarters, the most recent being last weekend's controversial reverse against Saracens, for the second season running.

With their stadium development complete and a dramatically different outlook on their expectations, Ulster will be earmarked for qualification for the remodelled Europe pretty much every season now. Under David Humphreys they have become a serious operation

How are they fixed now?

To add injury to insult – the sending-off of Jared Payne – the elimination of their leadership group in Ravenhill last week looked like something from a Mossad operation. Rory Best and Ruan Pienaar are gone until next season and both Dan Tuohy and Roger Wilson are out of the equation until next month.

It helped that Payne got the minimum sentence in Huguenot House last week, but that won't have him back in time for the trip to Glasgow on Friday. That's followed by a derby with Leinster in Ravenhill and then a spin down to Thomond Park. It's a brutal run-in for a side with so many front-line casualties.

Parts to be replaced

Johann Muller: Retiring. He has been inspirational for them since arriving three seasons ago, and is likely to pick his own replacement from South Africa.

John Afoa: A truly outstanding all-round rugby player whose place will be taken by South African Wiehahn Herbst. Afoa is off to Gloucester.

Niall Annett and Adam Macklin: Both are going to Rotherham.

James McKinney: Unconfirmed that he is returning to England from where Ulster repatriated him last year.

Projection

In a year's time we might well see Neil Doak succeed Mark Anscombe as head coach, which would be good business for Ireland as well as Ulster. By the time that happens hopefully they will have developed some depth at prop which at one point looked promising, but currently looks far from that.

 

LEINSTER

The gap between Leinster's half-time position last week – they were 6-6 having not played very well – and the finish was stark. Hands up if you thought they would sort themselves out at the break and do some damage to Toulon in the last quarter? That they didn't has prompted much navel-gazing, not unlike Munster when they were dumped out of the Amlin in Thomond Park three seasons ago.

What was worrying about Leinster in the second half was that they looked much the same as the first. It was frustrating that they took a lot of ball off the top of the lineout and moved it directly to midfield where neither Gordon D'Arcy nor Brian O'Driscoll was making any headway.

Ideally, they needed to occupy the Toulon forwards with plays directly off the lineout, and provide some go-forward before getting the midfield involved even if the home team made this difficult by loading the middle and tail of the line defensively. It was a miserable way for a big hitter to go out.

How are they fixed now?

This will become clearer over the next few weeks but for now the end-of-era feeling is lingering over the camp. This will give some focus to Matt O'Connor's pursuit of the Pro12 title to sustain season ticket sales and keep the punters – who are accustomed now to success – onside. They have every chance of success there.

Parts to be replaced

Brian O'Driscoll: Retiring. The prime candidate to replace him is Luke Fitzgerald if he can stay fit. The player himself is mad keen to fill that role but he needs to get his body to co-operate.

Leo Cullen: Moving onto coaching staff. Already Leinster are shaking trees in both hemispheres hoping a quality lock falls out. It's inevitable almost that their chosen man will not be Ireland-qualified, so someone will have to make way. Given that South African Quinn Roux – brought in as a project case two seasons ago – hasn't made the breakthrough, with just two runs off the bench in the Heineken Cup, he will be favourite to make way, but Leinster would rather offload him sooner than wait until his contract runs out next year.

Jack O'Connell and Darren Hudson: Both going to Bristol

Conor Gilsenan: Already loaned to Connacht earlier this season and going from there to London Irish.

Jono Gibbes: The departure of the forwards coach to Clermont will be a big loss to Leinster as he has made a fine contribution since arriving here in 2008.

Greg Feek: The scrum coach is moving up to Ireland full-time and his likely replacement will be former Australia hooker Marco Caputo.

Projection

This depends largely on how they replace O'Driscoll and Cullen. Leinster were at their peak in 2011 and 2012 when they had first Nathan Hines and then Brad Thorn in the engine room, with Seán O'Brien fit in the back row, and both Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa lining out behind. Their most pressing need is a top-of-the-range second row, whom they hope to announce next week. Also they need Michael Bent to morph very quickly into a useful prop forward. We understand his contract has been extended for another two years, at circa €160k – a move that, interestingly, wasn't publicised at the time.

 

CONNACHT

Things have settled down a bit after the fiasco of Tom Sears, the former chief executive, departing early with the attendant negative publicity focussed on the province's precarious finances. We understand the replacement process is down to the last two candidates, one of whom is a local and is favourite to get the gig. If that comes to pass then there are lessons to be learned from the mistakes of the past.

Hanging on to local talent, or migrants from other provinces, who develop nicely on Connacht's time is critical to their progress, and the case of Robbie Henshaw is now centre stage. His contract with Connacht, signed last November, runs until 2016. One of the first things on the plate of the IRFU's new performance director David Nucifora – who starts in June – will be to assess whether that time is best served in Galway or Dublin.

How are they fixed now?

The absence of a clutch of first-choice players – mostly imported – has forced Pat Lam to rely on home-growns which has worked out well in terms of continuity since Christmas. Not so well that they will make any impression on the business end of the league table though.

Parts to be replaced

Eoin Griffin: The loss of Griffin to London Irish will be softened by the arrival from Super Rugby of Chiefs centre Bundee Aki (24), a quick and powerful operator with a lot to offer. Interestingly, Connacht are also chasing All Black legend Mils Muliaina (33), who would be a terrific asset to a developing side. They are a bit off signing him yet.

Craig Clarke (possibly): He is due to see a specialist at the end of the month re concussion issues so his future in the game may be clearer after that.

Brett Wilkinson and Kyle Tonetti: Both retired due to ongoing injuries.

Projection

In reality, they're looking at second-tier European rugby competition next season but at least they are onside with the IRFU thanks to a positive review carried out recently by rugby committee chairman Martin O'Sullivan. An extra €350k will be added to the budget, some of which will go towards a new backs coach, and some investment in strength and conditioning. If they are to make progress on the field then a strong leader has to emerge at 10, from Craig Ronaldson, Jack Carty or Miah Nikora.

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