Pro12 progress now so crucial as Munster need massive lift

It was quite the day for Leicester Tigers yesterday, as the English Premiership giants kicked off another European week with the signing of a World Cup winner for next season and the announcement of a trio of new deals for established frontliners.

Having coolly dispatched Munster in Limerick and at Welford Road in December, the Tigers are sitting pretty at the top Champions Cup Pool 4, four points clear of the Irish province’s latest conquerors Stade Francais and with a home quarter-final draw within their grasp this weekend when they welcome whipping boys Treviso to the East Midlands on Saturday night.

They will do so after a league derby win over Northampton Saints last weekend that consolidates their top-four status in the Premiership and with the further morale-boosting news not only have backline trio Telusa Veainu, Matt Smith and Adam Thompstone all put pen to paper on new contracts but South Africa’s JP Pietersen will now be following Australian Matt Toomua in joining for next season.

Success breeds success and that makes a club all the more attractive to world-class, proven internationals when trying to recruit them.

Unfortunately, success is a selling point no longer available to Munster, last Saturday’s crushing defeat in Paris confirming their exit from Europe at the pool stage for a second season in a row and adding another year to the Heineken Cup hangover from 2008.

Only a winning run over the remaining 11 Guinness Pro12 regular season games to lift them into a top four play-off spot can begin to rescue this disappointing season and nothing less than a final appearance will prevent the Reds from a lowly seeding in next term’s Champions Cup draw. 

Not that last season’s run to the league final prevented Munster from a shambolic campaign against Leicester and French champions Stade this time around.

Munster now seem to be caught in a downward spiral.

Failures on the pitch make joining the club less attractive to the limited number of overseas players an Irish province can recruit and falling gates mean throwing cash surpluses at the problem in terms of big-name recruitment has not been an option for some time.

Furthermore, continuing performance problems mean fewer Munster players on the Ireland squad and therefore on central IRFU contracts which means the coffers available to chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald are further stretched, with the province having to absorb the salaries of more of its indigenous playing staff.

Heaven knows who will want to join Munster if the once unthinkable happens and they fail to qualify for the Champions Cup, a situation increasingly likely if this terrible run of form were to continue once the Pro12 campaign resumes at the end of the month and they lose ground to their three Irish rivals.

So where does head coach Anthony Foley go from here? 

He has two dead rubbers to complete in Europe and is adamant after losing three Champions Cup games in a row for the second season running, salvaging pride is key.

“We’re out of the competition now and stats and figures are what they are,” Foley said. 

“We’re trying to figure out how we front up next week and how we get a performance in at home that’s worthy of the jersey. We’ve got to win,” he added, of the remaining games at home to Stade and away at Treviso.

It is indeed a results-based business, as Foley also said in the aftermath of the 27-7 defeat at Stade Jean Bouin, yet would it be the end of the world if the head coach were to change things up, give some of the younger generation their chance in Europe and risk losing a now meaningless fixture in the process?

The frontliners who started in Paris at the weekend, with a few exceptions, were hardly worthy of the jersey when they capitulated to 14-man Stade in a disastrous second half highlighted by an alarming lack of leadership and joined up thinking. 

Foley himself pondered whether he should have stayed faithful to the team which ground out that much-needed Pro12 victory in Belfast seven days previously with a tremendous defensive rearguard against Ulster rather than recall the so-called big guns for the rearranged trip to the French capital.

So why not give Jack O’Donoghue (provided he comes through return to play protocols) the start his performance at Ravenhill merited, let Rory Scannell, Munster’s best back in Paris, take over the kicking from the first whistle rather than hope Ian Keatley has a rare good day with the boot or even fast-track Johnny Holland back into the fly-half reckoning, now he’s fit and firing again after a season on the sidelines?

What would be learned from another dismal performance featuring the tried and tested who have clearly lost their way, even with the carrot of Six Nations selection dangling in front of their noses?

Let the next crop make their mistakes and give their all trying to make amends in pursuit of a better future rather than tempt a repeat of the sorry spectacle of experienced players falling off tackles, missing kicks and being shunted backwards at the scrum.

After all, unless a kindly benefactor with deep pockets is going to drive an armoured van stuffed with cash up to head office in Musgrave Park in the near future, it is the homegrown youngsters on whom Munster will have to rely for some time to come.


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