Munster: The final frontier

Are the days of signing top, top names now more difficult for Munster because of finances?

Munster: The final frontier

WHEN April turns to May and there’s no European Cup final to salivate over, thoughts and background planning turn to next season. Time to take stock if not to clean house.

The signing yesterday by Munster of Brumbie Andrew Smith underlines they are planning for life without Casey Laulala and Jimmy Downey. There’s still Ivan Dineen, Johne Murphy, Keith Earls and Cian Bohane who can fill the centre jerseys next season but the recruitment of a top, top name would aid their development. Like Trevor Halstead, or Jean de Villiers.

To that end, the announcement of the Smith deal isn’t the blockbuster signing Munster require. It’s only a one-yearagreement, and if Smith proves the unheralded gem Munster believe he is, that will be extended pretty quickly. It’s important that I emphasise I’m making these points as a proud ex-Munster player, but where are the Howletts, de Villiers, Jim Williams, John Langfords et al? Are the days of signing those players now more difficult for Munster because of finances? I don’t accept that.

This week in France, the Bordeaux backs coach Vincent Etcheto has been spelling out the club’s ambitions for the remainder of the Top 14 campaign — finish in the top seven, get into the new European Cup and finish up in Munster’s pool to give them a taste of the “mythical” Thomond Park. It doesn’t have to be about fat wallets. Munster remains an easy sell across a contract table between agent and player. Sometimes when you’re there, you simply don’t realise the appeal of Munster. We’re all guilty of not seeing the nose in front of our face, but from this remove I see it clearer than ever.

There will be a change in coaching personnel next season, and a new game plan. The back three is sound and if those aforementioned centres had the benefit of a Conrad Smith or a de Villiers again, it would be hugely important. Recruitment has been a huge area of strength for Munster down the years — they don’t sign players just to sign people. Nine times out of ten, they’ve selected well and got a huge return. I accept with a World Cup looming it’s harder, but don’t tell me that Munster doesn’t appeal to players around the world.

Last Sunday was frustrating. Munster are consistent podium finishers but the difference between playing in a semi-final and a final is immense. And the difference between being in the final and winning that final is greater again. It’s about self-endorsement. When you reach the summit, you don’t have to doubt as much any more. Am I right? Is the game plan right? Am I top of the pyramid? You are, because you’ve won it. Doubt no more.

Getting to a final is a hurdle that hasn’t been negotiated yet by most of these Munster players and that’s something they have to do. There will be more regrets this time than after Clermont in Montpellier in 2013, as there should be. There was more experience last Sunday and they need to hoover all that up. Experience is the only thing that betters you. Not talking about it, tasting it.

It took us a long time to conquer Europe. When you’re the first team to plant the flag at the summit, the climb is steeper. But until you do, you won’t have that self-contentment as an individual, as a professional sportsman. Waking up a winner. All the better when you can contrast the sense of devastation after losing a final. These younger Munster lads haven’t experienced either emotion.

Individual errors proved costly but of paramount importance was the home advantage for Toulon. If that game was in any other country bar France last weekend, Munster are in the Heineken Cup final. It’s a massive edge in Marseille, 65km from Toulon. If the game was in the Aviva...

These are the margins involved. It’s too easy to make sweeping statements and talk about chequebook rugby as if it was the only difference. It is very important because it affords a club the opportunity to bring in the type of experience and quality at centre that Munster need (Toulon, by the way had the pick of Mathieu Bastareaud, Maxime Mermoz and Matt Giteau in the same position). Munster had the quality to win last Sunday — but the boost they’d get from a massive injection of quality would do wonders for an unbelievably hard-working squad going forward.

A prime example is BJ Botha; to play in the manner he did last Sunday was monumental. To set the example he sets. There is no prop in world rugby doing such a shift on the tight head side for 80 minutes. In my cranky moments when I played, I was wondering how motivated he actually was, but it was emphatically answered for me in the three years I played with him and again this season. Immense.

Anthony Foley and co will determine the recruitment policy for 2014-15 and will presumably trawl the world for the type of individual who will prosper here and will reciprocate in spades.

Because Munster always had strong forwards, and because myself and Strings were predominantly at half back, people said Munster were strong from 1-10. But our 12s and 13s were always top class. Halstead, Tipoki, Mike Mullins, Henderson, Rhys Ellison, Jean de Villiers, Mafi, Laulala, Killian Keane. People miss the point sometimes talking about areas of strength, confusing it with marquee names. A big debate in France at present is the accumulation of talent, making squad quality deeper and deeper. The downside is the number of players getting dejected with limited game time in the likes of Toulon, Clermont, Montpellier and potentially Racing. Are you better off at a club playing 20 minutes every three weeks and winning medals or getting your game every week for a club targeting between sixth and tenth in the table? It’s not all about money — this place is awash with money. It still comes down to smart recruitment and planning.

Are Munster vulnerable in terms of losing someone like Conor Murray? Of course, there is every danger because of the quality he brings. Murray is on everyone’s radar, even those clubs with established number nines, because clubs are always looking two years down the line. And you must understand and admire their proactive stance in that regard.

But any player with proper rugby ambition will be seduced by Munster. They are at the top table; what they’re not doing is closing the deal. There’s a world of difference in those two statements. This is the most consistent team in Europe, 11 semi-finals. But there’s more to do. Toulon always felt they had Munster’s measure last Sunday. They didn’t feel that before Leinster. They feared Leinster more than Munster. I’m very disappointed Munster didn’t catch them. I’ve mentioned Botha, plaudits too to James Coughlan. Monumental, and that block on Wilkinson’s drop goal attempt was straight off the GAA pitches in Cork.

I hope he goes to Argentina with Ireland, because that’s the stage he deserves. What will determine that is how he finishes the season in the Pro 12 with Munster. That’s what engages the man on the street — the fella you believe in, the one breaks who his balls every time being rewarded.

That’s life in a nutshell isn’t it?

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