In times of turmoil, and there has been plenty of that at Munster in recent seasons, the onus falls on the playing squad’s leadership group to pull the province through troubled waters, and it will be no different this time as the unexpected search for new coaches begins.
Two days after Jerry Flannery, the forwards coach, and Felix Jones, responsible for the backline and attack, made known their decisions to leave Munster at the end of this season, the squad and its coaching staff will this morning reassemble at their High Performance Centre in Limerick. They will begin preparations for a last throw of the dice in this campaign, a Guinness PRO14 semi-final in Dublin against defending champions Leinster on Saturday week.
And just as was the case when their head coach Anthony Foley passed away in October 2016, or when director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and defence coach Jacques Nienaber declared they were jumping ship to return to South Africa just eight months later; and again when Johann van Graan was drafted in, mid-season, to succeed Erasmus, it was the province’s senior players, led by captain Peter O’Mahony, who steered the ship into calmer seas.
Munster’s attempts to assemble a coaching ticket in time for this summer’s pre-season, an unenviable task given the short time period, will get underway in line with that famous Chinese proverb that even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step.
“Start with step one, get one coach,” a Munster insider said yesterday. “Building blocks.”
Given it was always head coach van Graan’s intention to restore his complement of coaches to the five that were in situ when Erasmus joined as director of rugby, with Foley his head coach, Nienaber in charge of defence and Flannery and Jones occupying the roles they are now set to depart, there are likely to be three coaches on Munster’s shopping list.
It may be semantics but with van Graan the boss as head coach, the wishlist could for an all-encompassing senior coach in the style of Stuart Lancaster at Leinster. This was the position Munster were understood to be looking to fill before the bombshell of the Flannery and Jones departures were announced on Tuesday, and for which current Wales backs coach Rob Howley had already been interviewed, according to media reports at the weekend.
Now the net must widen, to find replacements rather than just an extra member of van Graan’s management set-up.
There appears to be genuine sadness and disappointment in the Munster camp at the imminent departures while recent Irish Examiner interviews with both men gave no hint that there was any desire to leave or frustration with their current arrangements, rather satisfaction that progress had been made on their watch and enthusiasm for the work still remaining.
Flannery also spoke of his pride that the players had increasingly been empowered to drive things on themselves and now Munster are once again facing more change that emphasis on being player-driven will never be so important. Nor have they been better equipped to underpin the next transition given what they have been through and learned to deal with in the past three years since Foley suddenly passed away.
Resilience is never a given but it has become a part of the Munster DNA and when training resumes today, you can well imagine a collective shrug of the shoulders, the metaphorical rolling up of sleeves and positive shift onto the task at hand.