Failing to get out of the pool stages of last year’s Heineken Cup was perhaps a blessing in disguise for Tony McGahan and his need to find replacements for Generation Ligind. The journey was always going to have to end somewhere but until then it was difficult for McGahan to jettison proven campaigners. Kidney’s silverware gave him the status to make some structural changes, notably introducing O’Leary and Hurley against Gloucester. McGahan’s status as an “outsider” without silverware meant he lacked the political capital to rock the boat too much. The fact that Munster finished the season by winning the league and beat Leinster in a match that mattered was very important for Dumper.
The perception from outside Munster was that there were few young players coming through to replace the Liginds. This was corroborated by the paucity of Munster representation on Ireland’s underage teams and it seemed that after years of plenty, a famine was on the way. However, Munster have a tradition of producing quality players that fly under the radar of under age selectors and go on to greater things. As alluded to above, it was always going to be difficult for a coach to drop established players for two reasons: 1) they were probably better than their replacements and 2) if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Some of the players that had been bubbling under at Munster played against Edinburgh and were strong enough to pick up a bonus point win in Thomond. Billy Holland performed well in the back row and must be pushing for more game time. Holland is 26, three years older than Ian Nagle but a very similar type of player. Alan Quinlan’s retirement and the promotion of Donnchadh Ryan to the starting second row has opened up a slot at 6 for a rangy line out option.
Another reason why it may be more feasible for McGahan to change things is that he has a different coaching ticket this season, one with a lot of Munster capital. Anthony Foley was a leading Ligind, and has made the anticipated change to coach from player. Axel was renowned as a thinking back row as well as a spiritual leader of the Munster team. If he gives the nod to O’Callaghan being dropped for Ryan then its more likely to be accepted by the players and cognoscenti and McGahan won’t be questioned about it as much as if Laurie Fisher was beside him. Foley’s development also sees Ireland’s first generation of professional players moving into coaching roles rather than just punditry – anyone can spout on about rugby. Girvan Dempsey is unobtrusively – surprise – working his way through the ranks at Leinster in a similar manner to Foley. The NFL has a tradition of tracking the “coaching tree” of its participants e.g. people who worked with Bill Parcells went on to be head coach of X or Y after serving an apprenticeship as defensive coordinator etc. Irish professional rugby is getting to the stage where the impact of Declan Kidney, Joe Schmidt and Eric Elwood will be seen in a different light.
From a playing point of view Foley has reestablished Munster’s maul as a weapon. The ELVs depowered the maul and since that season few teams have reimplemented it successfully. The recent coaching trend is to have a trailer loitering at the back of the maul with one arm or hand “bound” to a phalanx in front of him. This is a penalty offence: “Placing a hand on another player in the maul does not constitute binding” and technically ineffective. The fact that it has persisted for so long reinforces Leo Cullen’s view that “you know that a great majority of them (coaches) spend most of their daily hours spoofing”. Foley might encourage Munster to get the ball to the back but Munster’s maul is a weapon rather than an affectation. A strong lineout is a great base for a mauling team and a reason why Holland might be picked at six with O’Mahony moved to seven or eight as the season progresses. Allied to the core of Liginds that still have the hunger, they are in a better position than some doom mongers had them for.