Anthony Foley and his new management team face a host of challenges this season, not least drawing high-flying English Premiership and French Top 14 sides Saracens and Clermont Auvergne in the pool stage of the new European Champions Cup.
While there are a lot of factors within Foley’s control, one aspect threatening the long-term competitiveness of the province is beyond the coach’s brief even if he has the influence to fight for change.
The Munster clubs’ results in the All Ireland League have become so negative that, in the not too distant future, it will have a major effect on the game in this province. It won’t matter whether its Foley, Graham Henry, Ian McGeechan or Joe Schmidt in charge of Munster because they would be attempting to produce players for the professional game with one hand tied behind their backs.
When Shannon were relegated from the top flight of club rugby in 2013, alarm bells should have gone off in the offices of the Munster Branch. The fact they were followed by Garryowen last May, leaving Young Munster as the only Division 1A side in Limerick, should have been cause for even more concern.
A cursory glance at this season’s Division 1A table after four rounds sees Dolphin rooted to the bottom while Young Munster and Cork Constitution — the only club in the 23-year history of the league to be ever present in the top division — both face major challenges in the months ahead.
For those of us with a close interest in the club game, these developments come as no surprise. Like all sports in the province, economic circumstances have seen far too many of our youth forced to either emigrate or relocate to Dublin in search of employment.
This has added greatly to the pool of talent available to Leinster clubs — they currently occupy all four play-off slots in Division 1A — who already have a rich and vibrant feeding ground at their doorstep from the schools, producing quality players on an annual basis. By comparison, the schools base in Munster remains quite narrow but that was always the case. The role played by clubs in developing talent through their underage and youth systems is strong and warrants even more support.
The professional arm of rugby in Munster badly needs a vibrant club system to supplement the efforts of their Academy in bringing players up to the desired level to compete for professional contracts.
Academies produce individuals. The key ingredient in understanding what it takes to be part of a team, to play for something bigger than yourself, to represent a club with a long history and tradition nurtured in the tribal warfare that existed for years in Munster Cup rugby and embellished even further when those clubs took ownership of the AIL over the first two decades of its existence, remains as important as ever in contributing to a competitive Munster side.
It is well documented the foundation stone for Munster’s Heineken Cup wins in 2006 and 2008 was nurtured and developed in AIL-winning sides from Shannon, Garryowen, Cork Constitution and Young Munster from the early days of professionalism.
Munster will always struggle in the numbers game and need to expose their developing players to as much competitive rugby as possible. There is a dire need for a gateway into the professional game and this should be accommodated by more players at academy, development and full contract level playing in Division 1A and 1B of the AIL on a regular basis.
Far too often, the excuse is made of the dangers of having contracted players mixing with their amateur counterparts but anyone who watches the AIL on a regular basis will see that the conditioning of all players in the top two divisions is at a very high standard.
When it suits the professional cause, they have no hesitation in demanding game time for even the very top players when the need dictates. Witness Paul O’Connell lining out for Young Munster on two occasions in recent years when recovering from injury.
The problem for Munster now is that they have several young players who train assiduously all week but are accumulating very little game time. After all, you train to play, not play to train. The slack is being taken up at present by a series of A games with the British and Irish Cup supposedly offering the competitive outlet.
In reality, the British clubs have little or no interest in that competition and on several occasions the English Championship clubs roll out their seconds team in that tournament.
I’m not quite sure what our players learn from playing Plymouth Albion seconds.
I fully recognise the need for our aspiring professional players to be exposed to competitive rugby outside of Ireland but would propose a revised template. Play an A interprovincial championship on a home and away basis, with a trophy on offer. Munster playing Leinster in Donnybrook or Musgrave Park, midweek under lights with proper marketing, would surely attract the interest of the rugby public.
That tournament would yield six games. Play two fixtures against second sides from two English Premiership and French Top 14 clubs in order to expose developing players to their counterparts in an environment they might one day face in Europe. That would yield 10 fixtures.
Rather than the AIL situation at present where only two contracted players (with a restriction of one forward) can line out for a Division 1A or 1B side, open it up. Draw up a list from every provincial squad of players the management deem would benefit from playing AIL rugby and let them off. At present we have inexperienced players in key positions such as tight head prop and out-half who are not getting enough rugby. A No 10 needs regular game time to perfect the art of game management. Ronan O’Gara learned that art — and also made his mistakes — as a young player in the AIL.
Unfortunately the horse may have bolted with a full review of the AIL conducted by the IRFU last season. The clubs opted to retain the status quo of only two contracted players performing at any one time in the higher echelon of the league. Munster as a collective should have fought that one tooth and nail.
Leinster have such a production line of players that they were ambivalent to any change while the Ulster clubs have always enjoyed a lukewarm relationship with the AIL. The fact that all 52 senior clubs spread across the four divisions had an equal say in deciding how many contracted players are allowed play in Division 1A and 1B smacks of turkeys voting for Christmas. As a consequence, club rugby in this country is sinking towards the lowest common denominator.
My fear is that the biggest loser will be Munster rugby who need to explore every avenue in their quest to develop homegrown players. Munster’s needs differ greatly from our counterparts in Leinster and Ulster.
The rugby authorities in Scotland and Australia recognised a requirement for a halfway house between the amateur and professional game with the introduction of a new National Rugby Championship in Australia this summer, with Scotland to follow suit from next season onwards.
All the successful Irish international teams from any era have been backboned by the specific qualities Munster players bring to the table. Therefore it is also in the national interest to ensure that Munster remain as competitive as ever on the European stage.
With good reason, “stand up and fight” became the signature tune of Munster in the professional era. It is high time those representing the club game in the province within the corridors of power at the IRFU do likewise before it becomes too late. Otherwise everybody loses.
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