Reality check for Munster rugby

IT’S difficult to escape the feeling that Munster’s comprehensive defeat at the hands of Saracens was an accident waiting to happen, says Donal Lenihan.

Reality check for Munster rugby

Advancing to the Heineken Cup semi-finals over the past two seasons helped to mask issues that have been brewing for some time.

Given the incredible performances against the might of Clermont Auvergne and Toulon in those two semis in Montpellier and Marseille, Munster have now taken a major step backwards in this season’s tournament.

The financial windfall generated from playing in the knockout stages of European competition over the last number of years did little to advance the signing of quality overseas talent.

And with finances taking a further hit without a home quarter-final in April you just wonder how Munster will be able to compete in the transfer market in the near future.

Repayments on the redevelopment of Thomond Park are proving a major drain on resources and are impacting on Munster’s ability to keep pace with how the professional game is growing in France and England.

Saracens have averaged annual losses of £5m (€6.5m) over the last few seasons, more than Munster’s entire budget, yet absorb this through private financial backing.

Their annual wage bill for players and support staff is over £8m (€10.5m).

The immediate consequence of the Saracens defeat is that Thomond Park is unlikely to be anywhere near full for Sunday’s dead rubber against Sale Sharks, hence, more money going west. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

There are also issues impacting the club game I have been hammering on about over the last few seasons and now the knock-on effect of the demise of club rugby in Munster is also coming home to roost.

There is no escaping the fact that money talks but there are other issues at play also. The worrying increase in the number of injuries being endured by all the Irish provinces this season has highlighted the necessity for quality depth in every squad.

Munster are badly lacking in that department and inevitably Anthony Foley is feeling the heat. Munster were on a coach out of Allianz Park within a hour of Saturday’s game which is just as well, as I haven’t seen the Munster supporters as downbeat and critical after a match in a long, long time.

That said many of the same people that were berating Rob Penney for his tactical approach were the same ones bemoaning his loss now.

Leinster coach Matt O’Connor has been on the receiving end of vitriol all season but has had to contend without key figures in Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien, Rhys Ruddock, Dave Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Fergus McFadden for large tracts of the ~season. The difference here is that in Jack Conan, Jordi Murphy, Dominic Ryan, Luke McGrath, Tadhg Furlong and Noel Reid, O’Connor has had the resources to ride out the storm.

Michael Bent has also done a decent job as third choice loose-head prop to shore up the scrum.

Leinster not only top Pool 2 but can secure a home European quarter-final by beating Wasps on Saturday. Win that and another big pay day from staging that game at the Aviva Stadium beckons.

They will have their work cut out to deal with a vastly-improved Wasps outfit but the confidence generated from last weekend’s seven try rout of Castres could not be better timed.

If you are in any doubt as to the extent of the changing landscape in European competition just look at the five pool tables. With the honourable exception of Leinster, the pools are headed by cash rich French powerhouses in Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont Auvergne and Racing Metro while England’s Aviva Premiership supplies the second placed side across all the pools.

Some of the money being thrown about by the leading clubs in France is mind-boggling.

Northampton’s USA international back rower Samu Manoa is but one of many new signings that Toulon have lined up for next season. While he enjoys nothing like the status of other confirmed international targets such as All Black Ma’a Nonu, Springbok colossus Eben Etzebeth and star No 8 Dwane Verluelin, Manoa is reputed to have been offered an annual salary in excess of €750,000. Based on that Etzebeth would have to command a figure approaching €1m.

The retirement of Jonny Wilkinson has barely caused a ripple in Toulon. And why would it when they already had Matt Giteau and Freddie Michalak on their books and added the Argentinean duo of Nicolas Sanchez and Juan Martin Hernandez in recent months to replace Australia’s James O’Connor who returned to the Queensland Reds after Christmas. Apparently Danny Cipriani is also on their shopping list for out half cover if he fails to make England’s World Cup squad. That Toulon squad is stronger than any of the international sides in this season’s Six Nations championship and better positioned to cope with injury. Quite how England coach Stuart Lancaster can afford to ignore the talents of Steffon Armitage with a World Cup looming is baffling.

Leinster may have been struggling for long periods of the season but their problems were always fixable. Munster’s will take a bit longer to address.

There are also issues surrounding the way Munster play. So much depends on the ability of the forwards to overpower the opposition at the breakdown and set piece that teams know exactly what’s coming and set out to stop them at source. Munster’s pack won’t be bullying any of the big teams in Europe any time soon and with the prospect of losing Paul O’Connell and BJ Botha from the front five over the next year and great uncertainty surrounding the future of Donnacha Ryan, Mike Sherry and Damien Varley things could even get worse.

From an attacking perspective, we have only seen brief cameos of what Andrew Conway, Simon Zebo, JJ Hanrahan, Gerhard van den Heever and Felix Jones have to offer this season.

I get the impression with van den Heever that there is a serious player ready to burst out at some stage but neither Penney or Foley have been able find the release valve.

It says everything that his fellow South African Pat Howard arrived here as an inexperienced youngster from Western Province at the behest of former Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal to gain some experience yet found himself parachuted into the midfield for two of Munster’s five Champions Cup games.

He is due to return to Cape Town soon yet we still have no idea if he possesses an outside break, what his hands are like or whether he has any great pace. He could count the number of passes he has received on one hand.

The inventive spark that Hanrahan brought to proceedings away to Clermont Auvergne was deemed surplus to requirements even when Munster trailed by 20 points last weekend.

Quite why the management waited until the last five minutes to bring him into the fray was baffling. The entire Hanrahan scenario does not reflect well on the province. Munster captain Peter O’Mahony is a warrior and always speaks from the heart. You could feel his pain when he spoke on Saturday: “We’ve left our fans down who travelled, we’ve left our fans at home down, we’ve left our families down, we left ourselves down”.

In truth, the players have also been left down.

Munster rugby needs to take a good look at itself.

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