Sport Rugby

Friday 23 March 2018

Tony McGahan: Time with Munster 'special' but wish it had worked out differently

Tony McGahan
Tony McGahan

ONE by one, they filed in... Keith Earls, Tomas O'Leary, Denis Hurley and James Coughlan... and then a stream of others, all wanting to bid farewell to Tony McGahan and wish him all the best for the future.

Professional rugby players may be finely honed athletes accustomed to physical punishment but there is a fragility also -- particularly in their relationship with the man who picks the team and holds their careers in his hands. The disappointment and anger at being dropped and the blame game when results go wrong can all lead to tension and angst between player and coach.

Thus, it was instructive to view the warmth on display when McGahan said his goodbyes following Monday's final review meeting in Charleville.

This was not tokenism or obligation, the genuine feelings of the Munster players and the affection and respect they hold for McGahan were plain to see, with the emotion of it all clearly getting to the normally implacable Australian by the time he resumed his seat with moisture in his eyes.

"It is one of the special parts of the job," he said. "There is a tremendous bond there. You put a lot of time in and you sacrifice and, like any relationship, you have good days and bad days and there are things said that need to be said and you get over that and get on with it.

"But to be able to work with fantastic people, both players and the support staff, is special, everything that makes Munster rugby such a wonderful place to be part of."

McGahan and his family are on their way back to Brisbane today, almost seven years since he arrived as a little-known former rugby league player employed to help out Declan Kidney as defence coach.

He played his part in landing two Heineken Cup titles before succeeding Kidney and is now moving on to bigger and better things as assistant to Robbie Deans with the Wallabies.

But how will Tony McGahan's time in charge of Munster be remembered?

History will show that Kidney got out at the right time. The side that he led to their second European title in 2008 has been almost completely revamped through retirement and injury.

So much so that the 15 that took the field for McGahan's final match against the Ospreys last weekend contained only one player, Donncha O'Callaghan, who started the final against Toulouse four years ago. 'Transition' has been the accepted description of what Munster have been going through -- not as an excuse, but as a fact and the curse of persistent injury, particularly this season, has made the process particularly excruciating.

Friday's 45-10 humiliation at the hands of a gleeful Ospreys side was an awful way for McGahan to go out. Having overcome persistent setbacks to steer the side through a tough Heineken Cup pool unbeaten, while keeping them in the mix for Pro12 honours, Munster's season and McGahan's legacy unravelled spectacularly following the Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat to Ulster.

They staggered on but, denied the services of key leaders such as Paul O'Connell, Jerry Flannery, Denis Leamy, David Wallace and Felix Jones, Friday was insult heaped upon injury and since that mauling, criticism of McGahan has been raining in and, in the internet era, the avenues of abuse have been prolific and relentless.

In the media, he has been damned as a "failure" for being unable to land a Heineken Cup or reach a final, which was slammed as "completely unacceptable" for a side of Munster's stature and reputation.

It stings, particularly given the effort he has put in, but McGahan accepts it as part of the job and remains steadfast in his belief that the building blocks are in place for a brighter future.

"It is what it is. I don't read social media but you certainly hear about it," he admitted. "Whether it reflects the population or the overall support group is different. And, like anything, wherever the most noise comes from, that can get the airplay and you certainly know that some journalists use that as their evidence and as research to base their stories, or facts or thought process around.

"Not everyone is on the computer, on Twitter etc and I have had nothing but positive support face-to-face, which I would always use as a good indicator.

"I was under no illusions about the task I faced, you have a squad full of international players who were going to be coming out of the system faster than replacements could be fed back in. It takes time, but if you look at the guys coming through, you could nearly name a whole side not only of guys who earned the right to play but are also able to contribute."

He is referring to players such Conor Murray, Peter O'Mahony, Simon Zebo and Mike Sherry, who McGahan fostered through to the senior side and into the international sphere. He enthuses also about the wave coming behind them, the likes of Dave O'Callaghan, Luke O'Dea, JJ Hanrahan, Niall Scannell and others who are ready to help the regeneration process.

Statistically, the criticism is justified and, looking in from the outside, Lawrie Fisher as forwards coach looked to be a mistake, while overseas signings such as Nick Williams, Peter Borlase and Jean De Villiers did not have the impact they were brought in for.

Leinster and Ulster are gearing up for a contest to decide the best team in Europe while Munster slope into the summer as Ireland's third province. The galling thing for Munster is that they set the template for the others to follow in the early 2000s and then could not keep up themselves and now there are definite structural issues to address.

McGahan is 100pc behind moves towards a single base, which has political ramifications in the Cork-Limerick tussle for Munster identity but is essential for the province to compete at the top end.

The schools problem is another issue and, with less feeder schools to choose from than Leinster or Ulster, the need to work in tandem with the Munster Academy is paramount.

It is Rob Penney's problem now and if the New Zealander can address these concerns and find a backs coach to develop the attack, Munster can start a new chapter with a degree of confidence.

McGahan certainly believes so.

"Seeing the spirit of this group, the quality and ability of the players, there is no doubt Munster will use this hurt and move forward. That is the pain of it, and the beauty of it.

"There is still a gap to filled to become 'great' again but it will be closed because I think the personalities and desire are there.

"For myself, I would have liked if things had worked out differently, there's no doubt, you work so hard to get the job done and you need a bit of luck too.

"There are undoubtedly regrets at wasted opportunities and not being able to take the team where I wanted to but it was wonderful to have been involved with the Munster story and for me to play a small part in it leaves a huge legacy, not only in my life but my family's as well."

How should Tony McGahan be remembered in Munster? A good man and a good coach, who took over the province at a bad time.

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