KIERAN SHANNON: Munster betray the culture of mana

There’s hardly a dressing room or workplace or TED talk you’ll come across these days that does not go on about ‘culture’ and ‘values’.

Invariably there’ll be a reference to ‘legacy’ and the All Blacks, with the store they put on humility and sweeping the sheds, to the point it’s now a cliché with barely a weekend going by without some GAA team somewhere posting up on social media how they’ve left a visitors’ dressing room spotless, the bin brimming with empty energy drink bottles.

However, the thing about most clichés is that they contain a kernel of truth.

‘Culture’ and ‘values’ are important.

There is something powerfully symbolic about an act, a gesture, from a Richie McCaw cleaning up a locker room shortly after a major Test win, to every Mickey Harte team of the last 25 years respecting the Tyrone jersey so much that they hand it back into the kitman’s bag, folded, not flippantly discarded for him to pick up.

Munster is one of the very few brand names in world rugby that carries a resonance and mystique that even remotely approximates that of the All Blacks.

Stop the average man or woman on the streets of Auckland and Wellington and they will not have heard of Premiership leaders Exeter Chiefs or even Saracens or Wasps but they’ll know of Munster.

Being such a big brand in a competitive, corporate world, Munster rugby has its ‘vision and values’ stated on its website.

‘Vision: To Be THE BEST RUGBY CLUB in Europe built on our UNIQUE ETHOS.

‘This is our COMMUNITY bound by our unrivalled PASSION and AMBITION as we strive for
EXCELLENCE with unfaltering INTEGRITY.’

For nearly two decades we’ve believed such words have been a living, breathing document, not some empty rhetoric, jargon, corporate speak.

It’ll always stay with me, Twickenham 2000 and the range of people and backgrounds I met on the tubes and in the pubs of London supporting Munster for that European Cup final.

They weren’t just from the province’s hurling heartlands of Tipperary and Waterford. They were from Kilkenny and Carlow, Cavan and Donegal. They came from all over the place, because they could relate to how Munster represented so passionately a sense of place.

Munster betray the culture of mana

‘COMMUNITY’. Munster to them were essentially a GAA team playing with an oval ball, which made them a team for all of Ireland, not just one of its four provinces.

Munster in London that weekend and for the rest of the decade and well into the next didn’t feel like some big bandwagon, but rather one big social movement. Munster didn’t just represent: They represented the best of us.

Paul O’Connell personified that ‘unique ethos’. After an autumn international win over Australia four years ago, Joe Schmidt used a Maori term, and one adopted by the All Blacks’ culture, to describe him: Mana.

Among New Zealanders, it is the ultimate accolade: To be a leader that possesses not just charisma and strength, but greatness and humility.

That’s what O’Connell was, not just on the field, but off it. A good friend of mine tells of the night he was outside a Limerick nightclub and O’Connell, elsewhere in the queue, was invited to skip it and come straight in. He declined.

He wasn’t about self-entitlement. He was of the people, not above the people. He wasn’t about skipping queues.

That was mana in action. Culture in action. ‘Unfaltering integrity’ in action.

Paul O'Connell's final game at Thomond Park.
Paul O'Connell's final game at Thomond Park.

Which is where the signing of Gerbrandt Grobler contradicts and jars with the purported
values and culture of Munster rugby. By taking an anabolic steroid to compensate for time and strength lost to sustaining ankle and shoulder injuries, the lad jumped the queue.

Like virtually everyone else, including those most harshly scrutinising his case this past 10 days, we have a certain sympathy for him.

He didn’t anticipate or sign up for this level of scrutiny and, back when he actually committed the offence in 2014, you could have a certain empathy for him too.

It all comes back to that word: ‘Culture.’ The leadership writer Ray McClean at the start of his book Any Given Team tells the story of walking into a bank.

It had a lofty mission statement on the wall, yet, three staff huddled in discussion and failed to acknowledge, let alone serve, him.

“Each of them would have looked at the others, not quite sure of themselves and thinking: ‘Well, if these two are behaving as if this is okay, then it’s surely okay for me to do it too?’

“That’s culture — if enough people are doing it, then it must be okay, and it can legitimise some unusual behaviour.”

So it is with doping.

Paul Kimmage is animated about this subject, because he saw how his own sport of cycling legitimised some unusual behaviour and how so many young men, including, briefly himself, came to the same conclusion arrived at by Limerick’s late Dolores O’Riordan around the time she was looking for a title for a debut album: Everyone else is doing it, so why can’t we?

The issue is not the individual athlete. The issue is the culture that makes a Kimmage or Grobler agonise over the Delores question.

The sad reality is doping is so rampant in South African underage rugby that schoolboy teams are tested.

John Mitchell, the former All Black, who has coached in the country, was staggered by its prevalence.

“Fundamentally, the problem in South Africa is that so much emphasis is placed on the size of players. The perception is that you have to be big in order to become a professional rugby player. It’s no wonder schoolboys want to bulk up.”

So, kids like Grobler jump the queue and the problem now is that, even though he has served his time and no doubt no longer dopes, he’s still jumping the queue.

Gerbrandt Grobler at Munster training, January 2018.
Gerbrandt Grobler at Munster training, January 2018.

Studies by the University of Oslo have shown the benefits of a period of doping continue long after a two-year ban. It’s giving him an edge over some other young man desperately seeking to wear the red jersey of Munster.

That, again, is where Munster is supposed to be different.

In most other rugby nations, the dream is simply to play “professional rugby”. The specific colours or crest of that jersey isn’t vitally important, but here it’s supposed to be different. That kid in Limerick or Tipperary isn’t looking to play for just anyone.

It’s to wear the same jersey as O’Connell, one that’s supposed to represent a “unique ethos”.

In an international sport, such as rugby, it is vital for there to be a transfer and influx of ideas and personnel from abroad.

No one is advocating insularity, but the Grobler case underlines the dangers of Irish rugby’s growing fixation on recruiting so heavily from southern hemisphere nations.

Rassie Erasmus repeatedly spoke about being blown away by the passion of Munster rugby and, no doubt, had he been around to see the fallout from his signing of Grobler, he’d have been startled by that as well.

Why? Because he wouldn’t know our history... where the biggest story in Irish Olympian history was tarnished by the spectre of doping, where two of our journalists were to the forefront of questioning superstar Lance Armstrong.

Where the Irish Sports Council/Sports Ireland is now one of the most vigilant and self-regulated anti- doping national bodies in world sport. Because we were far from being squeaky clean, Irish sport takes a certain pride in striving to be squeaky clean.

However, it’s too easy just to pin this on the likes of Erasmus, David Nucifora and now Johann van Graan, who coached Grobler for a year at schools level.

The Munster Professional Game Board directly contravened its own vision and values.

Munster have spoken about how they consulted people who worked with him in the past.

Ronan O’Gara, that other man we’d have had down as the personification of mana, worked with him in Racing last year.

Was he consulted and was he okay with Grobler’s past?

Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara.
Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara.

Philip Browne spoke during the week about Munster having a “crying need” for a player in the position filled by Grobler.

So, that’s what it maybe came down to.

Where values like ‘AMBITION’ and ‘EXCELLENCE’ outweighed ‘UNFALTERING INTEGRITY’ and that, as long as Munster strived to be ‘THE BEST RUGBY CLUB in Europe’, it didn’t really matter if its ethos was ‘UNIQUE’ or not.

Maybe Munster was never what we cracked it up to be.

Or maybe it once was, but no longer is. Either way, in its recruitment last summer and in its defensive statements this week, Munster has come across as just another professional club, a bit like the bank with the hollow mission statement on the wall.


It came as quite a surprise to learn that I had been writing my Weekend column in the Irish Examiner for 21 years — how the years have flown by and how the food scene has changed in Ireland over those two decades.A letter from Darina Allen, celebrating 21 years writing for The Irish Examiner

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