Soft Middle

Dan Tuohy (26) takes on Simon Zebo (21) in an emblematic image that shows the differing age profile between the two teams.

The Mole has written before about how the failings of the Munster Academy in the second Declan Kidney era are now affecting the fortunes of the province. While Kidney handed over a hard-nosed championship team to Tony McGahan in June 2008, things weren’t quite so rosy under the surface.

Munster only won 10 of their 18 league games that year, highlighting the lack of depth in a set-up that was dominated by the idea of being ‘first-choice’, with little regard for the health of the squad as a whole. Kidney has always valued consistency rather than competition as an aid to performance, and this remains a feature of his management at international level.

Club 25-29

Looking at the team that Tony McGahan sent out against Ulster in the recent HEC quarter-final, it’s worth noting the paucity of players aged between 25 and 29 in the matchday squad. In the starting lineup, there was:

  • South African loosehead prop Wian du Preez [29];
  • second-row Donnacha Ryan [28];
  • Tongan centre Lifeimi Mafi [29]; and
  • right-wing Denis Hurley [27];

With Damien Varley having lost his place, Denis Hurley having lost his position and Tomás O'Leary off to London Irish, Donnacha Ryan is the only Munster-born player of that 25-29 age group who can be judged to be a first-choice option with the province. Hurley was having a great season until Felix Jones was promoted ahead of him on the back of ... what? The form of nine months ago? Hurley ended up taking a whole heap of blame for his defense as a winger against Ulster, but it was a dubious call from McGahan to move him in the first place.

On the bench were hooker Damien Varley [28], scrum-half Tomás O’Leary [28] and utility back Johne Murphy [27]. Out of 23 players, there were seven players aged between 25 and 29 years old; just three of them [Ryan, Hurley and O’Leary] had come up through the Munster Academy. Murphy came via Leicester, Mafi via Wellington and du Preez via Bloemfontein; as far as The Mole knows, Varley was never in the academy, but made his bones with first Garryowen in the AIL and then London Wasps in the Premiership.

It’s this soft middle – the downside of Kidney’s legacy – which has been a serious factor in Munster’s relative underperformance in the last two years of European competition.

Look at the equivalent age bracket in their opponents, Ulster:

  • hooker Rory Best [29];
  • New Zealand tighthead John Afoa [28];
  • second row Dan Tuohy [26];
  • blindside Stephen Ferris [26];
  • openside Chris Henry [27];
  • South African scrum-half Ruan Pienaar [28];
  • outhalf Iain Humphreys [29];
  • centre Darren Cave [who turned 25 a few days before the game]; and
  • winger Andrew Trimble [27]

all fit the bracket, as do substitutes Lewis Stevenson [27], Willie Falloon [25], Paul Marshall [26] and Adam D’Arcy [26] … thirteen players between 25 and 29 years old, eleven of them Irish qualified and seven of them having come through the ranks at Ulster.

Looking at the other Irish province in the quarter-finals shows an age profile that is much closer to Ulster than to Munster. Leinster started

  • South African project player Richardt Strauss [26];
  • No8 Jamie Heaslip [28];
  • blindside Kev McLaughlin [27];
  • openside Sean O’Brien [25];
  • outhalf Jonny Sexton [26]; and
  • fullback Rob Kearney [26],

with South African prop Heinke van der Merwe [26], hooker Sean Cronin [25], second-row Devin Toner [25] and utility back Fergus McFadden [25] on the bench. That’s ten out of twenty-three in the 25-29 age bracket, and seven who came through the academy.

It’s Quality Man, Not Just Quantity … 

It’s not just the numbers that’s an issue, either. It’s the quality of the player, the experience they bring to the side, their on-pitch ability … for the sake of brevity, The Mole will restrict his comparison to the two teams who played in Thomond Park at the weekend.

Rory Best has captained Ireland and is the most-capped hooker in Irish history; Stephen Ferris has nailed down the blindside berth for Ireland against stiff competition, racking up 35 caps and a Lions tour in the process, and Andrew Trimble has collected 46 test caps since debuting in November 2005 as a 21 year old. Admittedly, Chris Henry is still a one-cap wonder and Darren Cave only featured on the 2009 tour of North America, while Dan Tuohy has made just two appearances off the bench for his country, but under a different national coach than Declan Kidney, all three men may have amassed more caps over the last couple of years.

The three Munster academy graduates can’t compare with the likes of Best, Ferris and Trimble. Firstly, only two of them started the quarter-final [Ryan and Hurley], and only one of them in his preferred position [Ryan]. While all three have been capped, only five of Donnacha Ryan’s eighteen test caps have been starts; O’Leary is way out of form and has been generally poor at international level since his sharp performance against Wales in Croke Park in March 2010, more than two years ago; and Denis Hurley got an extremely soft cap off the bench against the US Eagles on the summer tour of 2009 that coincided with the Lions tour to South Africa. Hurley is an under-rated player, but was played out of position on the wing in the quarter-final and shown up badly for Gilroy’s try; it seems probable that were Felix Jones and Doug Howlett fit at the same time [chance would be a fine thing!], he wouldn’t be in the starting line-up.

Ah, The Unseen Work 

Dumper McGahan doesn’t get much credit, but he has changed the whole ethos of the Munster professional set-up: they’re no longer a veteran team with associated foreigners and fringe players, and they’re no longer a team drawn from the best the AIL has to offer.

Dumper McGahan has put a lot of seeds in the ground since he took over, and the likes of O'Mahony and Murray are the earliest signs of his labour. If you think that this stuff just happens on its own, that good players just emerge naturally, then where are all the good players who were born in the 1982-86 era?

His work with the Munster Academy has already begun to turn profit in the shape of Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Simon Zebo and Mike Sherry, but the real fruits of his labour have not yet fully emerged.

Players should be in their prime by their mid-twenties, and it should extend to their early thirties … twenty-four to thirty-two is a pretty reasonable generic ‘prime’ for a rugby player. You can make an argument that it should run two years later for tight-five forwards [i.e. 26-34], and maybe two years earlier for back-three players [i.e. 22-30], but the 24-32 bracket is pretty reasonable. It passes the eye test.

It is the next Munster coach [whoever it may be] that will reap the harvest that McGahan sowed. Charlie ‘Boy’ George of the Evening Echo recently castigated an online rugby fan who stated that McGahan had ‘taken over the best team in Europe, and turned them into the third best team in Ireland’ over his four year term. It’s a pithy, caustic statement, and there’s a ring of truth to it if you’re intent on seeing things that way.

However, the Mole thinks that a fall from grace was inevitably going to happen anyway, and that McGahan’s best work has been done trying to ensure that they don’t stay the ‘third best team in Ireland’ for long.

They Don’t Even Know They’re Born

Munster have a whole tranche of quality prospects who are about to enter that ‘prime’ period. Some of them have already won their way into the matchday squad for HEC games: O’Mahony [22], Murray [22] and Zebo [21] have become HEC regulars this season, and Mike Sherry [23], Tommy O’Donnell [24] and Felix Jones [24] recently made their first starts in the tournament that dominates any assessment of Irish provincial rugby. Keith Earls [24] has long established himself in the both the Munster starting line-up and the Irish XV.

Paddy Butler might have got a chance against Glasgow at No8 with James Coughlan out injured, but McGahan opted for Peter O'Mahony, who put in a Man of the Match performance in the position where he has played most of his underage rugby. Where does that leave Butler in the depth chart for the No8 position?

There were further strong performances from some young Munster prospects in the recent British & Irish Cup semi-final cracker against Leinster ‘A’ on Good Friday in the RDS. Loosehead prop Dave Kilcoyne [23] carried with real power and good footspeed, and winger Luke O’Dea [21] was a threat any time he got his hands on the ball, outshining his highly rated opposite number Fionn Carr. No8 Paddy Butler [21] had an impressive all-round game and despite his yellow card had a strong positive influence on the Munster performance, whilst centre Danny Barnes [22] has already made his mark in the Pro12 this season, scoring five tries in the league. Ian Nagle [23] has been persistently over-rated over the last couple of seasons and lacks the physicality and abrasiveness that you look for in a young second row, but there’s no denying that he has talent and athleticism. Centre JJ Hanrahan [19] has starred in two campaigns for the Irish U20s, but struggled to make any impact in the semi-final; nevertheless, he’s a player of considerable talent in a position where Munster have long looked offshore for help.

That’s the guts of a team there, all of them talented and all of them under 25 years old. However, Kilcoyne, Butler, Hanrahan and Nagle have had little or no gametime in the Pro12 this season, and it’s difficult to tell if they’ll be able to cope with the demands of week-in, week-out professional rugby, especially up front in the pack. Kilcoyne might push himself ahead of Marcus Horan in the loosehead depth chart in the eyes of a new coach, or he might still be playing most of his rugby in the AIL or the British & Irish Cup. Butler will have a hard job wresting the No8 jersey away from James ‘Germany’ Coughlan, who has been Munster’s best ball-carrier this season, and with three centrally contracted second rows in O’Connell, O’Callaghan and Ryan ahead of him [as well as competition from Dave Foley and Billy Holland], it’s very difficult to see Ian Nagle cracking into the team for Heineken Cup games.

Veteran Leadership

The NFL Network panelists often make reference to ‘veteran leadership’ when they’re discussing players available in free agency. The money that surrounds American football is so vast that youngsters can easily have their heads turned … far more so than in Irish rugby. Older players are expected to keep freshly drafted rookies focused on their job, to offer them cues on how to perform in certain situations on the pitch, how to train, how to analyse opponents on tape and how to take care of themselves off the training pitch. NFL franchises are as ruthless about cutting players as just about any other sporting concern that I can think of, and the onus is on staying in the league so you can earn money for an extended period of time. If veterans are still on a team after eight or nine years, it’s because they’ve earned every one of those years.

Here's a fellah who knows a thing or two about winning tight games ...

In rugby, veteran leadership is a different beast altogether. Rugby is an ebb-and-flow game with huge variance in tempo, pressure and possession. In American football, every play is a finite thing; there are no forty phases of uninterrupted play.

Veteran leadership in rugby is about knowing how to close out games. It’s about having the ability to turn a game around when things aren’t going well. It’s about winning big games away from home – in short, it’s mostly about on-pitch performance.

Munster have been stocked deep with experienced players over the last decade – first it was Galway and Clohessy [both born 1966], then Jim Williams, Anthony Foley and John ‘Rags’ Kelly, then the likes of O’Connell, O’Gara, Quinlan and Hayes … it’s not always as clear-cut as saying that all the members of the leadership group come from a particular bundle of years, but what is clear is that there are very, very few players from the five year period between 1982-86 that are going to be serious contributors and leaders once the last of the double HEC-winning generation move off.

Mafi is off to Perpignan at the end of the season, and O’Leary is off to London Irish, leaving du Preez, Ryan, Hurley, Varley and Murphy of the quarter-final squad in situ for the new coach. That doesn’t look so bad when you have the likes of O’Connell [32], O’Callaghan [33], Wallace [35], O’Gara [35] and Howlett [33] to provide leadership and veteran nous next season, but ‘Maldini Project’ or no, those guys can’t stick around forever. Wallace turns 36 over the summer, and Howlett  turns 34 a couple of weeks into the season. Denis Leamy [30] will return, but injury has badly hampered the last four years of his career, and it’s very unlikely that he’ll ever return to the player he was in the 2006-08 period. Will he even make the starting lineup for important games? He wasn’t doing it this season.

Fast Forward

A lot of emphasis has been put on Munster's acquisition of James Downey – it's expected that he'll be a consistent gainline-breaker and form a focal point for an onrushing pack in the way that Trevor Halstead did back in the 2005-06 season. There are significant differences though: Halstead was a 29 year old with Springbok caps to his name, while Downey is an uncapped 31-year old with a lot of tread worn off his tires from almost 150 matches for Northampton in 5 seasons. That's not to say that he can't do a job for Munster, but talk of an Irish answer to Jamie Roberts is way off base.

Munster have turned 180º from a team that was too old to win the Heineken Cup in the 2010-11 season to a team that was too young to win in 2011-12. This was partly due to retirements of long-serving players like John Hayes and Flannery and partly due to a rash of serious injuries in the squad. With next season hopefully seeing the return of Howlett, Leamy and Ronan from their various surgeries, the continued recuperation of David Wallace, and the introduction of 31 year old centre James Downey from Northampton and former All Black Casey Laulala from Cardiff [who turns 30 next month], Munster will again be serious challengers at European level. Those returnees and additions will bring better depth and more big-game experience to the squad, but it’s a sticking plaster solution.

With the furor over non-Irish eligible tightheads, it seems unlikely that the province will be able to renew both South African props’ contracts. Botha’s contract expires when the 2012-13 season finishes [as does veteran loosehead Marcus Horan’s], while Wian du Preez’s runs until the end of the 2013-14 season, the former Cheetah having signed a two-year extension just before Christmas 2011. The Borlase signing has been an enormous disappointment, and it’s difficult to see the New Zealander having any sort of impact whatsoever next season.

Unless the PCRG go completely off the script and allow Munster to sign another non-Irish qualified prop, the province will be forced to work with the Irish-born talent that it has, and frankly speaking they haven’t been doing enough to promote it this season. David Kilcoyne [23] has seen just 10 minutes of Pro12 rugby, with John Ryan [also 23] getting 23 minutes spread over five appearances off the bench. Stephen Archer [24] has made a big improvement this season, but will he be in position to take over as Munster’s starting Heineken Cup tighthead in 18 months?

Rationing

It seems likely that the IRFU will continue their policy of reducing provincial reliance on non-Irish qualified players over the next three to four years. There’s no immediate argument that points to the changing of this tack, and as the provincial academies mature and become more reliable as regards making professionals out of talented youngsters, there should be less need [if not less desire] to hire foreign internationals.

The reduction in foreigners has been incremental. In the 2008-09 season the provinces were each allowed six non-Irish eligible players [Leinster for example had Rocky Elsom, Isa Nacewa, Felipe Contepomi, Chris Whitaker, Stan Wright and CJ van der Linde under contract], which changed to five non-Irish eligible [NIE] players and one non-Irish qualified [NIQ] ‘project player’ for the 2009-10 season.

Despite an awful lot of heated debate, the IRFU pre-Christmas announcement hasn’t been officially renounced or withdrawn, so from the 2012-13 season onwards the provinces will be operating with a maximum of four NIE players and one NIQ ‘project player’. Taking into account the limited sample size for the reductions in NIE players over the last four seasons, it still doesn’t seem improbable that the IRFU will knock another NIE player off the allowance before the 2014-15 season, leaving the provinces with a maximum of three NIE players and one ‘project player’ on their books.

Johne Murphy - is he made of the same ligind material as John Hayes, Mick Galwey and John Kelly, or is he just a versatile stop-gap player? There's no doubting his effort, but will he be a senior pro in HEC teams in three years' time?

It’s around this sort of time that the pinch will be felt hardest in Munster. In three years time, when the academy players that McGahan has brought through are hitting the 24-27 age group, when they’re the guts of the team, who’s going to provide the leadership and the experience? Who’s going to be a locked-in starter in their early thirties, the type of player who has scores of Heineken Cup matches under his belt, and who has played a dozen high-stakes knock-out games? Johne Murphy? Denis Hurley? Damien Varley? Doubtful. It seems likely that Donnacha Ryan – and perhaps Paul O’Connell – will be the only players left to fill that role. Despite Ronan O’Gara’s protestations that he’ll play until he’s 38, it seems unlikely that it’ll actually come to pass. There’ll be no shortage of talented 25-27 year olds in the team, but will they have the nous and the experience to get the team over the line in tight games?

In contrast, Ulster are bringing Lion Tommy Bowe [28] back home to complement the likes of Best, Ferris, Tuohy, Henry, Cave and Trimble. They’ll be all-in for the HEC over the next three or four seasons, and look like they’ll establish themselves as a very tough outfit on a European level – a tough, gritty team who have been together for a good while and are loaded with experience … just like Munster were in the middle of the last decade.

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15 thoughts on “Soft Middle

  1. Mole, you really ought to find a way to get paid for this stuff. It puts most of the output of Ireland’s “professional” rugby commentators to shame.

  2. Why do the players with the “nous and the experience to get the team over the line in tight games” have to be in their early 30’s? Are young players playing now already learning that trait?O’Mahony, Earls and Murray all started in the win over Northampton in Thomond (O’Mahony was Man of the Match if I remember correctly and, no, it wasn’t from Frankie) and a further cohort of young players have made their HCup debuts since then.
    Seven players under-24 started against Ulster and felt that sting of defeat (the defeat in the biggest game of their careers to date) that so many sight as formative.

    While age is a factor in the physicality of sport, it’s an arbitrary signifier of the mentality required.
    Anybody who has seen Peter O’Mahony play this season (indeed, you only have to look at last Saturday evening in Cork) can see that he’s a leader. Conor Murray plays in a leadership position. Keith Earls has impressed in what is often sighted as the pivotal defensive position.

    Did anybody worry about Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara or Paul O’Connell’s nous when they were 26? Did anybody worry about their 26 year old nous when they were 23?
    It would be ridiculous of me to compare any young players with those men.
    The new generation will be different and they will be men that we (and they) cannot even imagine yet but that will not make them less than than their predecessors. More years and more games will bring them the knowledge and will it matter if Mike Sherry and Felix Jones are only 27?

    • If you look at the teams that have won the last five European cups, they’ve all been backboned by guys in their late-20s, early-30s.

      Wasps 2007: Waters [31], Lewsey [30], King [32], Ibanez [34], Vickery [31], Shaw [33], Worsley [29], Dallaglio [34]

      Munster 2008: Howlett [29], Tipoki [32], O’Gara [31], Horan [30], Flannery [29], Hayes [34], O’Callaghan [29], Quinlan [33], Wallace [31]. Six thirty-somethings in that starting XV, and again just two players [O'Leary was 24 and Denis Hurley was 23] under 25 in the lineup.

      Leinster 2009: Horgan [30], O’Driscoll [30], D’Arcy [29], Whitaker [34], Jackman [33], Wright [30], O’Kelly [34], Cullen [31]

      Toulouse 2010: Clerc [29], Jauzion [31], Skrela [31], Kelleher [33], Poux [30], Servat [31], Lecouls [32], Bouilhou [31], Sowerby [31]

      Leinster 2011: Horgan [32], O’Driscoll [32], D’Arcy [31], Reddan [30], Ross [31], Cullen [33], Hines [34]

      The team with the fewest 30+ players in it is the Munster 2008 outfit, with six – just under half the team. The Toulouse team of 2010 had the most, with eight – just over half the team. The HEC is a tough competition to win, and it is generally won by relatively old and very experienced teams.

      That’s not to say that that sort of age profile is an absolute prerequisite for success, but there’s a lot of evidence there to support that line of thinking.

      • I still think that to a certain extent you’re equating two things which cannot necessarily be equated. You are putting an empirical value (age) to immeasurable qualities (experience, nous etc).
        For example, taking your three year timeframe, Mike Sherry (if he’s first choice over those seasons) will have a similar amount of HCup experience as Jerry Flannery had in 2008. Will it matter that he’s 2-3years younger then? Keith Earls will be five years younger (in three seasons) than Rua Tipoki was in 2008 but will have 8 years of HCup behind him to Tipoki’s 2 at that time (I appreciate that Tipoki played SuperRugby before that but the different structures of the competition makes them impossible to compare and HCup is far more intense).

        Surely you also have add some kind of a caveat for the front row. The majority of top level front rowers are generally going to be late 20’s/early 30’s. You can have a fairly inexperienced prop in terms of big games, who is in his late 20’s.

        And what do you say of the Welsh World Cup semi-finalists and Grand Slam winners, where the majority of the team is not even late 20’s but under 25?

      • Hi Ronan,
        Concerning “nous and experience”, the question was whether players in their 20s would have enough rather than a statement that players in their 30s have it as a matter of course.
        The Ulster players from the quarter final of the age profile being discussed include a Lions and a captain of Ireland. You can add Tommy Bowe to the mix from next season while I’ve chosen to discount the NIQs being around in three years’ time. The Munster players of a comparable age don’t have the same experience and don’t look likely to earn it either.
        Regarding empirical v immeasurable, all you can do is present is present the empirical. You’re right, the two don’t necessarily equate but there does seem to be a correlation. Alan Hansen famously said that you “Cannae win anything with kids” and was proved spectacularly wrong that season so if the players are good enough they will win.
        I agree with you that the number of matches at top class level decides experience rather than your age. We looked at that when discussing Graham Henry’s prefects and Stuart Lancaster’s target of 663 caps by RWC 2015.

        http://dementedmole.com/2012/03/21/the-prefects/

        Be interested to hear what you think.

  3. Pfft, I know what the Irish public like; there’s not enough uninformed allegations, biblical quotes, plugging of former teammates, awkwardly shoehorned military anecdotes or references to “Some bloke named Brian” for mass public consumption.

    Seriously though, very good stuff and an interesting analysis which goes well past the “Old Man Munster” claptrap which is peddled by the uninformed. Given POM has already been given the captain’s armband a few times this season he seems like the most likely of the young guns to step up to fill the leadership void that you have perceptively predicted a few years down the line. He’ll be youngish still, but in three years time he’ll hopefully have four full seasons of HEC and involvement in international squads under his belt. That is, given his penchant for concussion inducing diving tackles, if he hasn’t by that stage permanently reduced himself to a dribbling wreck of a human vegetable.

    Donnacha Ryan is a great player and should hopefully still be around, but he has never really been a vocal leader on the pitch, instead he has the menacing stare and controlled “manic agression” role down pat. POC will surely have exited by that stage but if not then happy days.

    If Uncle Deccie was still in charge of Munster I can’t help but feel that Ryan, Varley and Earls would still be on development contracts and he’d have broken the bank to keep Mickie Drick from retiring. “Ah sure Mick was training well, and it’s hard to see a fella going that well leave the team. Mick knows what he can do, I know what he can do and Mick knows that I know what we both know…….”

  4. As things are, it the Munster players won’t have much choice but to gain that experience over next number of years. Earls, Murray, Jones, O’Mahony, Sherry and Zebo will all be first choices now in their respective positions (barring disastrous injuries and/or form). By necessity, they’re the best players Munster have in those positions currently, all those players are going to play 15-20 HCup games and up to 8 PRO12 knockout games over the next 3 years. Add to that potential international exposure with most, if not all, those listed going to New Zealand this summer.
    It may not make up the number of caps to be ideal prefects but there are still players like O’Connell, Ryan, Ronan and Coughlin around.
    I see your point that Ulster, on paper, in 3 seasons looks like a more settled and experienced team but they’ll also have larger holes to fill once the NIQ’s leave.

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