DONAL LENIHAN: Gerbrandt Grobler furore is a problem of Munster’s making

Gerbrandt Grobler

The European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) officials, including board chairman and former England international Simon Halliday, congregated in the tunnel outside the palatial dressing rooms at the U Arena and had every reason to be pleased with themselves.

We had just witnessed a fascinating contest between Racing 92 and Munster, played out in surreal surroundings, in a game that ebbed and flowed from the outset, with the outcome in doubt up to the final whistle.

After five rounds and 49 games spread over the five pools — the final clash of the round was still to be played between Castres and Leicester at that stage — only one team, Leinster, had secured a place in the Champions Cup quarter-finals.

Round six next weekend offers all kinds of possibilities, with 14 teams still harbouring a mathematical chance of joining Leinster in the knockout phase next April.

This is exactly what the tournament organisers and the sponsors craved. No wonder everyone was in such good form.

Just then, details of developments outside the administrators’ control started to emerge. Mathieu Bastareaud’s homophobic comments directed at an opposition player in Toulon’s 36-0 win over Benetton were unacceptable and had to be dealt with swiftly. Within two hours, the EPCR officials confirmed his citing.

Leading on from that incident, the bizarre quotes attributed to Toulon benefactor Mourad Boudjellal entered the public domain and what had appeared like the makings of a pleasant evening for some of European rugby’s top brass took an unwelcome turn.

That is always the challenge for those in authority: Once you feel you are on top of things, something inevitably happens to reel you back in.

On the other side of the tunnel, Munster head coach Johann van Graan — clearly frustrated with losing a game they should have won, but equally relieved that Munster were returning to Shannon Airport within a matter of hours with a vital losing bonus point to aid their cause next weekend — was dealing with match-related queries from the assembled Irish media contingent.

The elephant in the room — the heightened coverage surrounding the signing of South African second row Gerbrandt Grobler, despite having served a two-year ban for the use of performance-enhancing drugs in 2015 and 2016, which van Graan had addressed a few days earlier in his pre-match press conference in Limerick — wasn’t on the agenda on this occasion.

It is only right and necessary that the events surrounding Grobler’s signing have been raised. The only surprise was the fact it took so long to be questioned. Grobler first played for Munster in a pre-season friendly against Worcester last August.

On this issue, Munster made their bed and must lie in it. Inevitably, the players will be quizzed on this, both publicly and in private, by their family and friends.

They have been put in a very awkward position, one not of their making, and face such questions as: “How do you feel about playing alongside someone who has taken performance-enhancing drugs?”

Grobler was signed by Munster on a 12-month contract to cover the departure of Donnacha Ryan — another poor decision, highlighted again by his forceful display against his former teammates last Sunday — and the arrival of Tadhg Beirne from Scarlets next season.

GerbrandtGobler and Billy Holland at training
GerbrandtGobler and Billy Holland at training

The Munster professional board would have sanctioned the signing of Grobler, but that should never have happened. It sends out the wrong message to everyone in the organisation. 

I fully accept that Grobler, as a young athlete, made a bad decision at a vulnerable time. It happens. I also respect the fact that he was man enough to plead guilty to his actions and suffer the consequences.

Across a whole range of professional sports, there are rules in place to address failed drugs tests and bans are served for varying lengths of time before re-entry to the sport. We may not like it, but, mainly for legal reasons, that is the reality.

Grobler served his time, re-emerged in Paris and featured regularly for Racing 92 in the Top 14 and Champions Cup last season.

Initially signed for three years, Racing were happy to release him a year into his contract when Ryan became available.

The big question is: Why did Munster deem it necessary to go down the route of signing a player who had served a drugs ban and how did the professional board sign off on it?

Munster has a proud history and is one of the most recognised and respected professional teams in the game.

They have a reputation for high standards, — set by those running the organisation and embellished by a magnificent support base — forged over the last 20 years, across all corners of Europe.

Having been approved by Munster’s professional board at the initial stage, one then has to question how the signing was ratified by the IRFU, as all non-Irish qualified players have to be? 

That process can prove challenging and difficult at the best of times. Given Grobler’s history, it is even more surprising that the IRFU agreed on this occasion.

On the basis of his highly impressive, man-of-the-match performance for Scarlets against Bath last Friday night, Munster have secured a real gem in Tadhg Beirne, and Joe Schmidt’s options up front are about to be broadened in the build-up to the 2019 World Cup.

Tadhg Beirne
Tadhg Beirne

The loss of Ryan, along with the departure of Dave Foley and John Madigan and the failure to extract Beirne from his Scarlets contract a year early, resulted in the decision by Rassie Erasmus to recruit another lock.

Coaches will always look to broaden their options and Erasmus felt that, promising and all as Darren O’Shea and the academy pairing of Sean O’Connor and Fineen Wycherley are, they were not yet ready to cope with the demands of European rugby. He wanted options outside of Jean Kleyn and Billy Holland to hold the fort until Beirne arrived.

Signing Grobler was the stop-gap solution to aid Munster’s short-term requirements, but the implications of going down that road were not fully thought out in advance.

How ironic that an injury picked up by Grobler in that game against Worcester has served to accelerate the development of that young trio of locks this season, while it appears likely that Grobler will move on when his contract is up.

Munster’s highly impressive centre of excellence at the University of Limerick is full to the brim of all the modern aids required to help the development of aspiring professional rugby players.

The ground floor is occupied by those whose brief is to identify and run the development squads that feed into the schools and youth teams which represent the province at underage level.

As you progress through the floors, you graduate to the areas housed by the sub and full academy players and the support staff dedicated to running those programmes.

The aim is clear for all. If you progress all the way to the top floor, you have made it into the fully contracted professional ranks of Munster rugby and have the right to rub shoulders with the likes of Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Keith Earls, and Conor Murray.

It must be made absolutely clear to those young men that there is no scope for shortcuts and no room for anyone who attempts to cheat the system.

That is why the signing of Grobler sent the wrong message to those whose dreams are consumed on a daily basis by a desire to make it all the way to the top. It was shortsighted and unnecessary.

EPCR might have a few problems to address this week, but none were of their own making.

In relation to the fallout from the Grobler situation, Munster can take no such comfort.


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