A summer of soul (and coach) searching begins for Munster rugby

Munster players Andrew Conway, Peter O'Mahony, Alby Mathewson, and Stephen Archer react after conceding their side's second try during the Guinness PRO14 semi-final match between Leinster and Munster at the RDS Arena in Dublin. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

When Scottish referee Mike Adamson blew the final whistle at the RDS last Saturday, it not only signalled the end of a somewhat underwhelming Guinness PRO14 semi-final, but also brought another Munster season to a conclusion.

It’s now eight years since Paul O’Connell held the Celtic League trophy aloft after a 19-9 win over newly-crowned Heineken Cup champions Leinster. Despite contesting numerous semi-finals on the domestic and European front, along with a disappointing 31-13 PRO12 final defeat to Glasgow Warriors in Belfast in 2015, Munster’s quest for silverware continues on both fronts.

While Johnny Sexton was lining up his conversion attempt of James Lowe’s try in added time which extended the gap between the sides to 15 points, the forlorn faces on the Munster players, stationed behind the posts, told its own story.

For Leinster, there was no outward display of triumphalism, just relief that at least some of the demons that still lingered after their crushing defeat to Saracens in the Champions Cup final seven days earlier had been exorcised. For them, it was business as usual. Time to move on and another final to be negotiated.

Things are not as straightforward for Munster. There are numerous clubs scattered around Europe who would give anything to be contesting the penultimate stage of domestic and European competition with the regularity that the southern province has enjoyed over the past number of seasons.

Not being able to take the final step grates, and leaves a sour taste at the conclusion of a season that, once again, promised much but fizzled out on an all-too-familiar note. The players have given as much as they can, which convinces me the spotlight needs to be shone on the organisational side of the operation.

The news that the Munster squad was set to be bolstered by the arrival of exciting new talent such as Joey Carbery, Tadhg Beirne, Arno Botha, Mike Haley, and Alby Mathewson at the conclusion of last season served to lift everyone within the set-up in the wake of defeats to Racing 92 and Leinster at the latter end of the campaign.

All those signings made positive contributions throughout the course of the year but, for a variety of reasons, didn’t carry enough for Munster to negotiate that final step. As of now, Leinster scrum-half Nick McCarthy is the only addition to the group for next season, even if rumours abound about the possibility of an overseas signing to boost the options in midfield.

That would be welcome but, without fresh thinking on the way Munster look to attack, nothing is going to change. Rory Scannell and Chris Farrell have been the first choice midfield when both were available, but are Munster getting the best out of that combination?

For me, the answer is no. Scannell is a very talented individual with an excellent left foot, which should widen the tactical kicking options, a decent step and is a competent passer. As with all of the players, this is a key that’s always open to improvement. Just look at the role played by Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy in putting Sean Cronin over in the corner for a superb Leinster try last Saturday.

Scannell’s development has plateaued in recent times as he spends most of his time carrying into traffic. He has more to offer than that. That is why coaching structures must come under the spotlight. After all, you have to ask yourself, why does Chris Farrell constantly look more menacing playing for Ireland than he does in Munster colours?

There is no doubt Joe Schmidt gets far more out of Farrell than Johann van Graan has managed all season. Schmidt sees far more in Farrell than just his impressive physical attributes.

Yes, he too can take the ball to the line and generate forward momentum but he has a range of passing skills and an ability to offload in traffic that Munster’s attacking mindset has been unable — or unwilling — to exploit.

While it was a no-brainer that Munster needed to strengthen their coaching ticket, managing to lose two of their existing staff in Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery in the process does not reflect well on the set-up.

The appointment of Rassie Erasmus in 2016 signalled a shift in Munster’s thinking in terms of the job description. To that point, the main man was categorised as a head coach. When it came to dealing with the wider issues such as player retention, contract renewals, and new signings, CEO Garrett Fitzgerald did most of the heavy lifting and did a superb job in that capacity for years.

It was recognised however that responsibility for that function had to transfer to the management team, hence Erasmus was given a wider brief when appointed director of rugby in 2016.

As a result, his workload was more weighted on designing the game plan, selection, recruitment and player management rather than hands-on coaching.

That role freed up his predecessor Anthony Foley to revert to what he did best and exert his considerable influence directly with the forwards on the training ground. That combination was beginning to flourish up to the point of Foley’s tragic passing.

However, it’s interesting Van Graan, at least on Munster’s website, carries the title of head coach. Therefore, having recognised the need for change at the point when Erasmus was recruited, it now appears Munster have reverted to their previous structure, despite the strides made during Erasmus’ all-too-brief tenure.

As a result, and with Jones and Flannery both exiting for reasons that are still far from clear, acting Munster CEO Philip Quinn and the eight-man Professional Game Board now appear to be tasked with the job of finding three new coaches.

That process appears unwieldy even if, one presumes, the IRFU’s director of rugby David Nucifora is likely to have a major input in the process and the search to identify the right people. His track record in influencing appointments such as this within the provincial set-ups has been impressive.

If he manages to convince one of his former charges from his coaching days with the Brumbies in former Wallabies out-half Stephen Larkham, who I think would be an inspired choice, to take the role as attack coach, then Munster could well emerge in a better place at the conclusion of this unsavoury mess. We await developments on that front with interest.

Leinster, for their part, march on to Celtic Park in search of even more medals. While they came up second best to an outstanding Saracens side in Europe, they face a challenge of an entirely different nature against Glasgow Warriors.

Dave Rennie’s men carry nothing like the bruising physicality Mark McCall’s charges brought to Newcastle. They rely far more on the pace and inventiveness that has them scoring tries for fun of late. Not only did they register seven in their Guinness PRO14 semi-final rout of Ulster, but they managed three against the ravenous Saracens defence in their Champions Cup quarter-final.

Playing at home in Glasgow offers the free-flowing Scots an additional advantage in a game where they will ask questions of Leinster. The big difference from last weekend, however, is Leinster’s structure and organisation in defence, an area where Ulster were far too porous.

That and the quality of the Leinster back row, where the returning Josh van der Flier was superb against Munster, offers Leo Cullen’s men a significant advantage on the assumption they have one big game left in the legs after another demanding season.

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