Question: In light of Alan Quinlan’s assessment of Munster’s performance against Stade Francais being “embarrassing, humiliating, disgraceful” what three words would you use to describe the current malaise?
Frank Sheahan (Munster and Ireland hooker 1996-2009):
“Ah, look, none of those words were appropriate. I thought they were disappointing and harsh. Now, to be fair to Quinny, I understand where he was coming from and that he was deeply frustrated at what he had just witnessed. I appreciate that ex-players can be emotional and become too critical. It’s because they care so much about the jersey and Quinny is as committed a Munster man as any of us.
“However, comparing today’s squad with our day is like comparing apples and oranges. When I quit in 2009, we had six seasoned internationals in the front-row alone, you had Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell, Mick O’Driscoll, Donnacha Ryan in the second-row, Quinny, David Wallace, Denis Leamy, Anthony Foley, Niall Ronan (who had Irish caps and still couldn’t get on) in the back-row, not to mention Peter Stringer and Tomás O’Leary at scrum-half and Ronan O’Gara and Paul Warwick at out-half. What a group of players. Today’s lads don’t have that level of experience but there seems to be the same level of expectancy. If anything, they seem to be fighting above their weight.”
Pat Murray (Munster’s first captain in European Rugby, 1995-96):
“Disappointed, worried, apprehensive.”
Mike Lynch (Munster centre 1996-2000, senior AIL club coach):
“Unfortunate, unforeseen, self-inflicted.”
Question: Are Anthony Foley and his coaches the people to get this squad firing again?
“Yes, but with reservations. If you had asked me last week I would have said they needed support and I would be curious to see what Andy Farrell is going to do.
“You need somebody who isn’t in the bubble they’re probably in to look at things from a different point of view.
“If things were to continue the way things are going I would certainly say they need somebody to question whether they are going the right way. Going in the same direction is not working and in that case you need to be able to turn and do something else.
“If they are going in the right direction then they are just not getting the rub of the green.”
“My take on that, and I’m not keen to have a go at anyone in particular, is that I think the make-up of the coaching team is a bit insular.
“Some new ideas might be needed in helping the coaching team. There is no doubt the guys there have their strengths but in coaching terms it is still a relatively young ticket. Perhaps a Declan Kidney/Eddie O’Sullivan-type person could come in to point out the wood from the trees, to give a change of direction here or there. I don’t know who that person is, but it would want to be somebody with experience at the highest level, who has worn a lot of t-shirts and who could guide and nurture what’s there.
“Obviously the guys in situ want to be there and there is a hunger for the job, these results did not happen because of spite from anyone; it’s not lack of knowledge, but I don’t know whether they have the required experience.”
“It shouldn’t be down to Axel and his staff alone. It’s from Garrett Fitzgerald, the CEO, all the way down the line. It’s down to the whole organisation and they have their backs to the wall. Nor am I sure that moving the headquarters to Limerick is the solution and I hope they have thought it all out. Will the lads from Pres and Christians who now go to UCC opt to go to UL?”
Denis Leamy (Munster and Ireland back row 2002-2012):
“It’s a very, very difficult time for everyone and it’s very easy to get all emotional about things and start pointing fingers and look for drastic overhauls of the organisation but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s a difficult period and we’ve just got to find a way to work through it.”
Question: How much can Andy Farrell do as a part-time coaching consultant?
“All we know right now is he is supposed to be around for a couple of days, but I would hope that because of the way the guy is he will give it as much time as is required, and if it takes six days at a time to examine things then it should be allowed for. You’re not necessarily going to be able to see things in a week or two. I would have said six or seven weeks ago, before the Treviso game in Europe, that things were fine, but again in the last six weeks it has gone pear-shaped and you would like to know what happened and for him to look and figure out what might be happening. He has seen how things developed in England and if he wasn’t good enough Joe Schmidt would not have picked the guy.
“He will be looking at Munster but will also probably be another pair of eyes for Schmidt. If Joe Schmidt can take his advice, there’s nothing wrong in us taking his advice here in Munster.”
“I think he could do an awful lot, we have all seen what a Sam Allardyce can do when he goes to a club that is struggling, straight away there is a pick-up, Farrell had a huge influence on the Munster and Irish players on the last Lions tour, they all brought back something positive. Our most experienced players would, I imagine, have been delighted to learn he was to come into the Irish scene and he can only be a help to all of the guys, to Anthony and his team. I think he is a whole mindset coach. Possibly the type of game we have been playing recently has been stagnated by comparison to others. We’re kicking the ball too much. How can you beat teams by kicking that much ball? It can seem to somebody sitting back watching from the comfort of the couch that we go to phase one, phase two, and then kick the ball away.
“Then we’re scrambling to get it back. We praise players by making turnovers back but we don’t seem to look at why we kicked it away in the first place.”
“I have no doubt this is a very smart move. Nobody knows the Munster game better than Anthony Foley. Nobody knows how to win matches better than Anthony Foley. Nobody gave more to the cause than Anthony Foley. And he was wise to welcome Andy Farrell on board because he appreciates that Farrell has the experience and knowledge to bring something new and valuable to the table.”
Question: Are we expecting too much of Munster to carry on competing with Europe’s powerhouses?
“Maybe, but look, Munster had a share of difficult days in the past. I was on a team slaughtered by Toulouse in 1997, but we came back from it. Remember too that it was a pretty experienced Munster team, although one that was very much on a learning curve trying to adapt to European opposition. As the years went on, we had a lot of players that gained huge experience through playing with their clubs in an intense competitive atmosphere. If you think of the people involved, they were just hardened by the ups and downs and when they lost that first final to Northampton after five tough but exciting years in Europe, they came back stronger, individually and as a team.
“Looking back on that, you would have noted that Declan Kidney had a punt on younger players, Eddie O’Sullivan followed suit at national level; sometimes you have to make a call on those young guys, throw them in and decide to go with them but leave them in for a while to allow them settle down and into the team. You can only judge them after five or six games. For players to develop, they have to be given a chance to settle and one thing that worries me is there are too many players not playing regularly at whatever level, club or whatever.”
“I think we are. If you consider the increased salary cap in England and the money available in France, it’s very difficult. I can’t state it with certainty but there’s probably more money available to clubs in the French D2 than there is for Munster and the Irish provinces. If we can’t compete on that level, we probably have to go back to basics and work out how we can produce the players like we had in the golden age. People will probably have their views on where the All Ireland Leagues stand now as opposed to back then but the fact remains that the best Munster teams came out of a very strong and vibrant club structure. Whether that’s possible again is really up to the powers that be. Part of the problem is of our own making; for instance, bringing in guys for three-month contracts seems daft when we have our own excellent young players who three months later are untried instead of getting game time and experience to see whether they will sink or swim.”
“I don’t buy into the money issue making all the difference at all or that we don’t have what it takes to compete with Toulon, Saracens, and the rest. I don’t think the situation has changed very much. In our time, we were told the Toulouse budget was in the region of €19 million and we were operating off a base of around €3m. And yet we were able for them, beating them in a quarter-final in Bordeaux and a final in Cardiff. We had to fight our corner. It’s not a new thing at all. You just have to find a way. It’s a huge challenge in trying to turn this oil tanker around but if any team can do it, it’s Munster. No team has had its backs to the wall like Munster but they always came back and I believe they will do so now, too. But it will take a massive effort from everyone, not just the coaching staff and players.”
“There’s a lot of factors. It’s like a perfect storm of events. I just hope that people don’t turn their backs on Munster Rugby. The support can have a hugely positive effect on things. There’s loads of negativity out there but support is a massive factor for Munster. It’s well documented how much it means for players to have the support of the people from where they’re from.
“There’s a bond there between the players and the supporters and I’d like to see that bond still exist. Obviously the support base generates money but it’s more than that, it creates a winning atmosphere I’d like to think.”
Question: What gives you hope there is a brighter future ahead?
“I would just hope that every week during this difficult time they are learning. You have to work hard but you have to work smart as well. We will never have the kind of money available to the likes of Toulon, but there are times when money isn’t the be all and end all.
“Tradition must count for a lot and I’m sure it still does for the players, or should. I don’t believe they’re going out there not to play ... but they must learn from every defeat and setback. I would say to the current players to remember Munster wasn’t always on top, there were bad days but they gave way to better days. They need to get back to creating a special atmosphere within the camp and with the supporters.
“It took us and subsequent teams a while to create something like that, but it took off and it can again.
“It will come but everyone will have to row together.”
“In Munster we’ve always had a backs to the wall attitude and sometimes when we think things are darkest we get a chink of light. We have good players but maybe the pressure has been heaped on them a bit too much, by the media in certain areas but also by the fans and themselves. Are they as good as the teams that won the Heineken Cup? No, but they have to aspire to that because of the jersey they’re wearing.
“I’m thrilled Anthony (Foley) has been given and taken on the help of Farrell. I love to see, for instance, the likes of the two Scannell brothers coming through, just as an example of what is out there. It’s Pres, the schools, Dolphin, the old system and there was nothing wrong with it. I’d like to see more of that, see who the next lads are to come out and let them have a go, and if we’re in the wilderness for a couple of years, you won’t lose the supporters.
“The victories will come, it won’t be tomorrow but it will be down the road.”
“I’ve no doubt it can be turned around. Why? Because of Munster’s wonderful tradition. Many another team would die for it.
“They’ve always been resilient and determined and while those virtues in themselves may not be enough, they’re a large part of the battle. Something like 20 years ago, Kilkenny hurling was going through a lean spell so they brought the most talented people in the county together to figure out the way forward. And look where they are today.
“Again, it won’t be easy for Munster to do likewise but I’m sure it can and will be done — provided we are not too proud to reach out and ask for help from the many great rugby people in the province, men like Donal Lenihan and Jerry Holland to name but two.
“And I’m absolutely certain there has to be a big role for Declan Kidney. I’m not suggesting he should be head coach or CEO, only that what he could offer the organisation should be appreciated.
“It’s open to question whether Munster would have ever become a household name in the game, a byword, were it not for that man.
“He was the catalyst for the whole thing. These people and several others like them are living in Munster and if they were asked for a contribution, I am sure it would be immediately forthcoming.”
“I’ve worked in schools rugby for the last four years and the talent is definitely there, the systems seem to be in place. It’s just a matter of getting these guys through. I would imagine the talent is even a little bit better than when I was coming through the structures.
“Players now are far more advanced in terms of their diet, skillset, and strength and conditioning; it’s all ahead of where we were coming from. So talent is definitely coming through, it just takes time and hard work and hopefully we can set things straight.
“I had the pleasure of working with Bill Johnston last year in Rockwell and with Jack O’Donoghue in Munster underage teams and these guys are as good as anything I’ve ever seen. If you’re trying to draw parallels with these new guys and the generation that’s just gone I don’t see any difference and there’s more O’Donoghues and Johnstons out there, you could name 10 or 11 guys. I believe in these players. There’s good things happening in underage rugby in Munster and we’ve won three under-age interpros.
“These are positive signs and a bit of patience would be a big help.”
Interviews: Barry Coughlan, Charlie Mulqueen, and Simon Lewis
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