DONAL LENIHAN: Decline of Munster empire goes much deeper than coach Anthony Foley

“Munster captain Peter O’Mahony is a warrior and always speaks from the heart. You could feel his pain when commenting immediately after Saturday’s game. ‘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.” (Irish Examiner: January 20, 2015)

I FEEL a bit like Kerry great Ger Power replying to the media before yet another All-Ireland football final. 

You need a quote? “Ah, just put me down for what I said last year”.

I penned the opening paragraph to this column almost 12 months ago to the day, after Munster had been smashed by Saracens at Allianz Park last season. 

After six defeats in the last seven outings, the reaction to Munster’s latest defeat, specifically that demoralising second-half collapse at the Stade Jean Bouin against a side reduced to 14 men for the entirety of that period, has been fairly poisonous.

Alan Quinlan’s immediate post-match reaction on Sky Sports was not delivered by a man looking to raise his media profile. 

It was spoken from the heart, by someone who cares passionately about rugby in this province. 

It also reflected the mood and anger being voiced by a sizeable proportion of the Munster public, many of whom have supported the province for a long, long time.

I have been beating a drum for a long time now on the issues that have been contributing to the demise of the game in Munster, not least the catastrophic state of club rugby in the province. 

Where Leinster have always benefited from a rich and fertile schools system that has been churning out a plentiful supply of promising talent for decades, Munster’s production line placed a large dependence on the strength and identity of the club game.

Of course the traditional rugby schools in Cork and Limerick, coupled with Rockwell in Tipperary, have been developing a decent supply line of quality young players for years. 

Those gems, however, were shaped and developed, along with others from non-rugby playing schools, in the highly competitive beasts that defined Munster club rugby.

The demise of the club game has finally come home to roost but is just one of a number of issues impacting on the competitiveness of the professional setup in Munster at present.

After that demoralising defeat to Stade Francais, I commented: “The challenge facing Munster now is that there is no short-term fix available. The problems, on a variety of levels, run far too deep for that.”

Parking the multiple issues facing the state of the club game — I will come back to those again soon — let’s examine just two of the many challenges facing the professional setup at present.

1. The coaching ticket

Anthony Foley is feeling the heat from all angles at present but he has been around long enough to appreciate that, as head coach, he takes responsibility for the performance on the field. 

As an outstanding player and captain, he understands better than most what is required for Munster to be successful.

Before his appointment, he acted in a variety of coaching roles, progressing through the ranks with the Munster U20s, the A side, as defence and forwards coach with the senior side, joint coach with Eric Elwood with the Irish Wolfhounds before replacing Gert Smal for a period as forwards coach with the full international side. 

The response from all exposed to his coaching was very positive, including many experienced heads within the national setup.

Unfortunately, in his first stint as a head coach, Foley has been surrounded by a young coaching ticket with little or no experience at this level. That becomes a major challenge when results start going against you.

Factor in that the teams most dominant personalities and standard setters in Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell are no longer on board while Peter O’Mahony, the captain and spiritual leader of the next generation, has been absent all season. 

CJ Stander has worked tirelessly to lead the charge but he can’t do it on his own. 

Unfortunately, there aren’t too many lieutenants putting their hands up to share the burden.

For years, Munster’s game was built around a dominant set-piece, power and physicality at the breakdown, control and direction from half-back. 

They no longer have the tools to implement that and are struggling to make the necessary adjustments. Rob Penney recognised it and tried to drastically alter the way Munster played.

He too had his dissenters and it took time for the players to come to terms with his approach but progress was being made. 

Unfortunately, he wanted more than the one-year extension offered and left. 

What we would give for the two Champions Cup semi-finals he delivered on his watch now. 

From a tactical perspective, the side appears in no man’s land at present.

The fact that Andy Farrell had now been spectacularly parachuted in from nowhere is a recognition of this and while he has the experience, hard edge and presence necessary to effect change, you wonder how his presence will effect the dynamics in the coaching box.

That said, something had to change so this must be seen as a positive step. 

Ultimately, it could prove massively beneficial to Foley who has so much to offer but is in need of help and support. It is now up to him to make this intervention work. 

Farrell must be given the licence to effect chance and not be frozen out.

2. Recruitment

While accepting that the ground rules have changed massively in this area due to the money floating around in France and England, Munster’s approach on the recruitment front appears too reactive and driven by short-term needs. 

A revision of the management structure with a Director of Rugby put in place with a wide, overseeing role encompassing, amongst others, the integration of the academy and the responsibility for recruitment, would enable the head coach concentrate on his primary function.

Connacht’s proactive integration of their academy players appears to be preparing them more quickly for elevation to the senior ranks, even if that is driven by necessity. 

That said, they are showing more faith in their younger players and, in a several instances, are being instantly rewarded.

What was the point in Munster recruiting Lucas Amorosino on a three-month deal before he heads off to join up with the new Argentine Super Rugby franchise? 

He was recruited primarily as cover for Felix Jones when the likes of Ronan O’Mahony, Stephen Fitzgerald, Darren Sweetnam, the Johnson brothers, and Cian Bohane are already in the system. 

What message does that send to them?

Last season, Pat Howard flew in from Cape Town and made a reasonable impression in a few Champions Cup games but was gone home before we knew it. 

Sean Doyle arrived from Australia on another three-month deal as back row cover. 

He is yet to make an appearance for the senior side and is unlikely to do so before his contract expires at the end of the month. What’s the point?

Former England and Lions full back Dusty Hare is a full-time scout with Northampton and he was directly responsible for enticing JJ Hanrahan to the Saints. 

Leicester Tigers also have an active recruitment arm and they sourced three relatively unheralded forwards from the southern hemisphere in Brendon O’Connor, Michael Fitzgerald and Lachlan McCaffrey that have transformed their season. 

Wasps plucked another relative unknown from obscurity when Auckland Blues left powerful No 8 Nathan Hughes go. He along with O’Connor are likely to be capped by England this year.

While I accept the reasons for restricting the number of non-Irish qualified players to four, Munster’s options here are restricted further by financial constraints. 

That said, a more active recruitment arm acting within the organisation could unearth financially viable options like those sourced by Leicester and Wasps.

They are just two of many challenges facing Munster rugby at present and I haven’t even addressed the elephant in the room — the falling crowds in Thomond Park. 

With the senior squad and the academy set to be based in Limerick from next season, it feels like the southern half of the province has been cut adrift.

It will be interesting to see what happens when the 10-year tickets come up for renewal in two years’ time. 

The token offering of Zebre, Treviso and the Dragons pitching up in Musgrave Park for their annual Guinness Pro12 jousts only serves to add further fuel to that fire.


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