Well, is this what they had in mind when they talked about a return to old values?
When Munster rugby decided not to extend the contract of a coach who was about to reach a second consecutive European Cup semi-final, and then replaced him with a coaching ticket made up of their own, the organisation was saying something about itself as well as Rob Penney.
Losing European Cup semi-finals in the south of France by a single score didn’t cut it, wasn’t good enough. Playing a more expansive game wasn’t the Munster way. Penney didn’t get Munster whereas Anthony Foley and the rest of his coaching ticket did.
A couple of years on and you could make a case that it’s unfair on Foley to compare the hand he’s had to work with and that Penney was dealing with.
In 2013, the Kiwi was still working with talents — titans — like O’Gara and O’Connell. Foley hardly has an out-half or captain of that calibre now. And if you take a game like last Saturday in the Showgrounds, you could say Munster had elements of Penney’s game thrown in there, moving the ball from side to side, combined with a greater desire to go down the middle.
Still. Actually, stop. Two words expose Foley’s Munster and any limiting factors or excuses you can conjure — Lam’s Connacht.
Four months ago when his team beat Munster in Thomond Park, we wrote about how it was a triumph for a different kind of courage in Irish rugby. Instead of accepting the limitations of Connacht rugby, he challenged them and expanded their possibilities. Instead of just throwing sweat at their problems, Connacht would throw the ball around.
Skill would complement graft.
In fact grafting at crafting skill would be the cornerstone of his philosophy and their success.
It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for Foley. Here is one of Munster’s greatest and most loyal warriors. He’d served a considerable apprenticeship as a coach, being part of backroom teams headed by the likes of McGahan, Penney, and Kidney. Unlike other great warrior- players/struggling-maligned coaches like Steve Staunton, he did not jump the queue. But all his experience was rooted in an old mono culture. And just as big a problem was to surround himself with such an inexperienced coaching ticket.
It was highly encouraging over the weekend to see the FAI are enlisting the likes of Damien Duff into the backroom staff of Ireland underage sides, but you would hope both parties would be aware of the challenges as well as opportunities that come with such an appointment. A few weeks ago Duff was interviewed by Graham Hunter as part of the journalist’s series of podcasts.
He recalled during his stint with Shamrock Rovers, he was asked to have a word with a young winger. And as Duff made his way over to the kid, he admitted that he didn’t really know what to say to him because he had never before had to think about, let alone articulate or coach, a skill he could do so instinctively.
It was a classic case of procedural knowledge versus declarative knowledge. It’s one thing being able to do something; another to verbalise or explain or coach it to someone else. There has to be an element of that with the Munster coaching staff as well. Jerry Flannery was an outstanding servant for Munster and will, given time, be an outstanding specialist coach. But it’s one thing to know what to coach; another thing knowing the optimum way how to coach it.
There was something appropriate about Lam being photographed congratulating an equally-beaming Dave Ellis after his team’s demolition of Munster last Saturday. Ellis is a dedicated skills coach, focusing on increasing the standards of his players’ handling and decision-making in particular. They’re standing up under pressure because they practise for pressure. In Connacht, it’s all about skills and simulation. In other set-ups, including in too many schools and clubs in Munster, everything is contact and drills.
Back in January, the recently-retired Munster player Johne Murphy gave a fascinating interview to Newstalk’s Off the Ball that surprisingly got little traction in the print media. Contrasting the Foley regime to the Penney era, he observed, “Under Rob, if you tried to run the ball to space from wherever it was, whether you knocked it on or not, he’d say, ‘That was a great decision, you have to execute that.’ Whereas with Anthony, it can be sometimes based on ‘Well, you ran the ball there, why didn’t you kick the ball 50 yards down the pitch? You know, low risk, and that’s where you play from.’ But that’s not necessarily where the game is at or where the lads need to play, because they have an electric backline and serious amount of speed and skill that they need to utilise.
“You look at two [European] games last year from when I was involved. Clermont at home, it was all about trying to do what we did to Saracens, and that was beating a team up of bigger men and winning an aerial battle in a kick-kick game, which for me was not the correct way to beat Clermont because they’re just huge men.”
You could say Munster don’t have the skill Murphy argues Munster has, and you could be right — because they don’t work on and develop skill the way Lam and Ellis do. You could argue too that under Foley, Munster have varied their style of play somewhat.
But Murphy hit on something.
Throughout Munster rugby there are too many playing a game that no longer exists, or at least, wins.
It’s like a choice hurling in Clare, Foley’s home county, had to make at the end of the last decade; stick with the old game or change.
Rugby is no longer “a street fight with a ball” as Foley once defined it. You’ve to do more than stand up and fight. Sometimes you can dance too, as Lam has shown.
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