The Mole was second-guessing himself over the holiday season. Was it The Fear? Partially. It was also the feeling that he can be a little bit too harsh on certain elements of the Munster set-up.
Provincial fans can be prickly with regards to defending their team’s players. It would seem from some fairly frank conversations over the last couple of weeks [and especially in light of the recent interpros] that it’s entirely possible to hold two valuations of the same player in the same mind: one that is voiced in the company of your own fans, and one that is voiced in the company of other fans.
A Tale Of Two Cities
This was considered with particular reference to the recent travails of Duncan Williams, and indeed to the fascinatingly varied make up of the Munster scrum-half corps. Williams had a tough day at the office against Ulster in Ravenhill, but every player has tough days. What was interesting was the divergent responses which his performance generated from Munster fans.
For some, Williams is still a young player that demands sympathetic handling. For others, he’s a guy that simply hasn’t made the grade. Of course, there are always going to be differing opinions on players amongst any fanbase, but something that continually piques the Mole’s interest is Irish rugby fans’ attitude to age in the game.
Williams was born in April 1986; he’ll turn 26 before the season ends. Tom Gleeson, another starter for Munster last Friday, was born in September 1985 – 26 already. Between them, the two lads have made just 19 starts for Munster over three seasons. Given that there’s about 30 games every season, that’s 19 starts from 180+ opportunities. Even allowing for injury, that’s a fairly startling level of inactivity.
It’s not like we’re examining the learning curve years [say 19-22, the typical academy age-group]: we’re looking at guys who should be entering the prime of their careers. That they’re not doing so is highly suggestive that there’s not really going to be a prime for them.
That’s a harsh judgment, and who knows, maybe a run of games will see them make the breakthrough. However, on examining the evidence you’d have to say that this ‘run of games’ isn’t going to be forthcoming.
There are a couple of other players who fall into the Williams/Gleeson bracket: Darragh Hurley [October 1985] and Billy Holland [August 1985]. Hurley debuted for Munster as a 20 year old back in September 2006 and even played some Heineken Cup rugby that season, but his career has been badly damaged by injury after injury and seems to have stalled beyond recovery: he’s started just five games in the last five seasons. You look at that and have to think that maybe he’s just not cut out for professional rugby, because that’s half your career right there.
Holland at least plays a bit, but in the middle of the fifth season of his professional career is no closer to Heineken Cup rugby than he was in his first or second. With 23 starts in four and a half seasons under his belt, he’s averaging about 5 starts in the Pro12/ML per season. He hasn’t been massively hamstrung with injury, he’s just a guy who doesn’t get selected very much.
Peter Borlase [May 1985] is in the middle of his second season with Munster, having arrived from Canterbury at the start of the 2010-11 season. He has made just four starts since he arrived, none of them this season. Now, Richardt Strauss [another project player] didn’t make a huge impact when he arrived in Leinster, but that was largely because Michael Cheika refused to pick him; when Joe Schmidt came in as coach, Strauss earned a place as one of the first names down on the team sheet.
Borlase has seen Fisher replaced as Munster forwards’ coach by Foley, and still hasn’t seen much action. Maybe he’ll start proving his worth as an IRFU special project once he returns to full fitness, but the jury is out … a long way out. When players don’t have a specific long term injury keeping them off the pitch and yet miss a lot of games, then there’s usually something afoot either form or behavior-wise.
Mondale To Hart: Where’s The Beef?
This is where the second-guessing comes in. There are a whole range of issues that crop up when discussing the careers of players like the five outlined above.
The first is to compare them with their contemporaries and see how they relate in terms of their standing in the squad.
While the progress of Devin Toner [June 1986] hasn’t always been smooth, he has racked up 82 appearances for Leinster since he first donned the blue as a gangly 19 year old back in January 2006. It seems incredible now that Cheika would put him in that position, because it’s obvious to most half-intelligent rugby fans that Dev was always going to be a guy who would take considerable time to grow into his height.
His early debut is something that the Mole sees as going against him in journalists’ appraisals: everyone seems to think he should be ‘further on’, but he’s not much more than 25 years old, which isn’t particularly old for a second row. His best years are clearly ahead of him, and it’s not at all unlikely that he could still be playing for Leinster in nine or ten years’ time. After all, Mal O’Kelly only retired at 35, and Leo Cullen is still kicking within days of his 34th birthday.
Rob Kearney [March 1986] has made 111 appearances – Nelson! – for Leinster, as well as 33 for Ireland and 3 more for the Lions; all this despite the fact that he missed almost the entire 2010/11 season with a serious knee injury. Fergus McFadden [June 1986] has made 61 appearances for Leinster [somewhat surprisingly, the vast majority of them – 46 – being starts], despite having to share the same positions as Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll and Felipe Contepomi.
Fionn Carr [Dec 1985] moved back to Leinster after racking up 73 games [and 34 tries] for Connacht, and has managed 3 tries in 9 starts since he returned to the blue. Sean Cronin [May 1986] is another fresh arrival from Connacht, where he put in a 65 game stint after arriving from Munster. He’s up against fierce competition in Richardt Strauss [Jan 1986], who qualifies for Ireland in September 2012 and has already made a significant mark on Leinster rugby in his 51 games.
Jonny Sexton [July 1985] has made 64 starts in his 83 appearances; this is the seventh season he has taken the pitch for Leinster.
You look at this group of Leinster players [Sexton, Carr, Strauss, Kearney, Cronin, McFadden, Toner], all of whom were born within a 12-month period from June 1985 [Sexton] to June 1986 [McFadden & Toner], and a couple of things stand out. Five of the seven are capped internationals – the exceptions being Carr and Strauss – and all of them have played more than 50 games for their province/s.
There couldn’t be a stronger contrast with their Munster contemporaries, none of whom have come anywhere near a cap, nor even particularly close to starting some games in the Heineken Cup, the typical stepping stone to international rugby.
The Fear Factor
The second step is to consider their motivations in staying put in a situation where progress – if any – is measured in increments so small as to appear farcical.
This is a surprisingly sensitive issue. Suggesting that players are happy in a comfort zone where they are called upon very infrequently to actually play matches can be taken as questioning their competitive will, and yet it’s an eminently reasonable viewpoint. If these guys aren’t happy to be playing second fiddle, why don’t they back their talent and try to make something of a career for themselves somewhere else?
Do they just enjoy walking around Limerick/Cork kitted up to the nines in Munster gear? Is it that simple?
Or is it that the loyalty to Munster runs so deep that they’re willing to put aside the obvious fact that they are spending a significant portion of a short career doing little else but holding pads?
Is it that there is some lack of self-confidence? Munster players used to leave the province to try their luck elsewhere if they didn’t feel that they were making progress: Mick O’Driscoll headed off to Perpignan from 03-05 at 24 years old when it became clear to him that he had lost out to Donncha O’Callaghan in the bid to replace Mick Galway. Micko won 21 of his 23 Irish caps after his return to Munster.
Stephen Keogh left Munster at 24 years old to move to Leinster for the 06-07 season; Trev Hogan [26 at the time] did the same. Both had more than 50 Munster caps at that stage of their careers, but could see that they weren’t likely to pass the players ahead of them in the pecking order.
Eoin Reddan left Munster at the end of the 04-05 season [again at 24 years old] for what turned out to be four seasons at Wasps, having spent a couple of seasons behind Peter Stringer. Mike Ross headed off to Harlequins in 2006 [aged 26] for three seasons, and returned to Ireland a much in-demand player.
Look at those players and the ages at which they left Munster: all five of them between 24 and 26. Fringe Munster players used to want to play rugby, get ahead and make something of themselves. Now it seems that they are all too ready just to play games against Newport Gwent Dragons, Aironi and Connacht and hold the bags for the rest of the season.
The Queue Is More Important Than The Talent
The third element is to wonder whether there are two different but equally effective ways of managing players’ careers.
Munster have got two and a half excellent seasons out of James ‘Germany’ Coughlan after first giving him a development contract back in 2006 as a late-blooming 25 year old. Coughlan had earned his spurs with Dolphin but was essentially a bit-part player for his first three seasons with Munster, only starting 8 games in that period. His first big season for Munster was 09-10 as a 28/29 year old, but it was his cracking 10-11 season that earned him his Munster Player of the Season award. Now, there’s always a bit of a lean towards players who are trojans of the Pro 12/Celtic League ahead of those who spend more time with the international team – and rightly so, from the Mole’s point of view – but to come away ahead of the likes of 14-try Doug Howlett, Ronan O’Gara on a points-scoring career high [260 for the season] and perennial match-winner David Wallace is still a huge accomplishment.
Donnacha Ryan is another example. He was first capped by Declan Kidney for Ireland in November 2008 against Australia, but it wasn’t until almost two years later that he started his first HEC match for Munster [after which he was promptly dropped, unfortunately]. He turned 28 in December 2011, and it took him the guts of seven seasons to become a regular name on the team sheet for Munster’s HEC games.
One of the more cutting – and pithy – criticisms the Mole has heard applied to Munster over the last couple of years states that “the queue is more important than the talent”. Donncha O’Callaghan put it a little differently in his recent book, saying that Mick Galway didn’t hand over the jersey to him, but instead he had to reef it off him; anybody looking to take the No4 jersey away from O’Callaghan will have to do the same.
Saying that is all well and good, but living it out is another question entirely. In theory, it’s entirely plausible that a player could start every game of the season if he remained uninjured. In practice, he’d be a wreck by about February or March, just when the real business end kicks off. You need depth in every position, and you need guys who can step up to the plate if the man in possession loses form or fitness. The IRFU’s player management program does kickback to players competing for positions by taking the internationals out of the equation for parts of the season [and this allowing the competing players more gametime in the league], but when it comes to cup rugby, all too often the safety first approach to selection wins out.
There’s always an excuse to take a conservative outlook in selection [the ‘we need to win this one’ outlook] but a good coach balances that with the realization that you need depth, you need to not be utterly reliant on a single player in a position – at least where you can avoid it – and you need to take the occasional chance on younger players.
On the other hand, maybe Munster are better served by the older mindset of having to take the jersey away from the man in possession when his powers are fading.
Goodbye Sabermetrics, Hello Bludgeonmetrics
While that’s one way of looking at it, there’s a deeper reaching series of consequences to these C86 players not getting selected that often.
The first [and perhaps most obvious] one is that they’re taking a wage from Munster, money that could be used somewhere else. Munster have an enormous, 48-strong squad which – from the Mole’s point of view – carries a number of passengers. In a collision sport like rugby, the benefits of having a large squad are obvious: you will inevitably pick up injuries over the season, and it’s better to have experienced cover available than be left digging into the academy.
However, there has to be a play-off between the number of players you can contract and the number of players you should contract. Munster have found themselves in a situation where they have too many players who make three or four starts and a similar number of runs off the bench every season in the Pro 12 while never threatening a Heineken Cup squad.
For every game these guys get, there’s the suspicion that they are merely filling a space. There’s a negative pay-off further down the line, if you will. They’re taking odd minutes of gametime away from younger players who could prove to be an awful lot better than them.
The other viewpoint [and one mentioned very briefly above] is that no player thrives on patchy gametime – a game here, another one a month later, another after Christmas. These players aren’t really getting a fair crack of the whip to show what they can do, be it for better or worse. Obviously a coach isn’t single-mindedly focused on proving or disproving which of his players is good enough to make the grade – he’s got bigger things to worry about, like results – but the idea of giving a middle of the road player a significant run of games to prove whether he’s worth further investment shouldn’t be wholly disregarded.
The Final Straw That Broke The Camel’s Back And Gave Him A Kick In The Hole
Holland, Williams, Gleeson and Borlase have all been conclusively leapfrogged by younger colleagues.
- Peter O’Mahony [September 89] has started three of Munster’s four HEC games on the blindside ahead of Denis Leamy, never mind Billy Holland;
- Conor Murray [April 89] has become Ireland’s first-choice scrum-half, and skipped both Peter Stringer and Tomás O’Leary in the rankings, leaving Duncan Williams a long way back in the dust;
- Danny Barnes [October 89] made more starts in 2011 than Gleeson has in his entire Munster career to date; and
- Stephen Archer [January 88] is, with John Hayes’ re-retirement now behind us, Munster’s second-choice tighthead.
When The Hurley Burley’s Done, When The Battle’s Lost And Won
The only one who hasn’t been conclusively outstripped is Darragh Hurley, which is a pretty stunning indictment of Munster’s situation at loosehead. They’ve got a hard-working NIQ in Wian du Preez who’s miles ahead of anyone else on the depth chart, an undeniably past-it 34 year old Marcus Horan in second place, perennial sicknote Hurley in third, and 23-year old academy player Dave Kilcoyne in fourth place.
Owing to injury, illness and selection, Hurley is still a largely inexperienced prop. The fact that this is his sixth season contracted to Munster is somewhat irrelevant: he’s played about as many matches in that time [36, with 14 starts] as a fit and able prop would manage in a season and a half. Obviously there’s more to progression than gametime alone, but to say it plays anything other than a significant part is simply obtuse.
Hurley might be well tuned in to how Munster do things, but injury hasn’t just kept him from playing games, it has kept him off the training pitch. There’s considerable ground to be made up there and, in all probability, somebody so injury prone for such long periods of his career isn’t going to come in and all of a sudden be able to play a number of 20-22 game seasons in a row, which shouldn’t be beyond the compass of any prop not subject to the IRFU player management program.
It has been apparent in recent times that Munster have no problem with flogging a dead horse when it comes to eeking out the careers of Generation Ligind players: Alan Quinlan played out a patchy and injured-afflicted last season up until two months away from his 37th birthday, and John Hayes was dragged out of retirement to pass his 38th birthday with Munster. On the other hand, Marcus Horan is simply not the physical specimen that either of these two players were, and the law of diminishing returns has been evident in his performances for three seasons. Munster are between a rock and a hard place at loosehead, which possibly explains the persistence with a player as injury-prone as Hurley.
Rugby is an extremely position-specific sport, and there are a number of limits imposed on the provincial teams by the IRFU with regards to recruitment. With the limit on NIQ players and the contractural veto held by the PCRG [Professional Contracts Review Group], it’s not really an open market when it comes to sourcing players. Munster have invested an awful lot of coaching, time and money in Hurley; unfortunately, there’s very little to show for their investment. In a different business, a line would be drawn under his contract and they’d move on. However, there’s no thriving market in Irish props; they can’t just cut their losses with him and go out an get another loosehead.
With that in mind, Munster don’t have a wide range of options to choose from with regards to how they proceed. The one that leaps out [and which they will likely pursue] is to make a move for Connacht’s Brett Wilkinson, a 28 year old South African-born loosehead who became qualified for Ireland through the three year residency rule. Wilkinson has appeared for the Wolfhounds for a number of seasons and was included in Declan Kidney’s training squad for RWC11 before a hamstring injury ruled him out of contention. A move to Munster would catapult him into immediate international contention, and also likely earn him a significant increase in salary.
Another move – or rather lack of a move – is simply to persist with the same personnel, and hope that Hurley can return from his current back injury before the end of this season to get himself some gametime. With a good pre-season behind him, he could then look to push himself ahead of Marcus Horan in the depth chart before Christmas 2012, with Dave Kilcoyne being exposed to more rugby as Horan turns 35. Wian du Preez would still play a major role as first choice, but then that’s why the provinces pay NIQ players.
The third idea is a little more left-field. Denis Fogarty is a talented front-rower, but has serious issues with a major part of the hooker’s position, namely throwing the ball into the line out. Even without Jerry Flannery, Munster are pretty well-stocked at No2 with Varley, Sherry, Fogarty and Sean Henry. Despite his recent injury, Sherry looks to be the coming man, which would see Fogarty squeezed out of the picture on his return.
Essentially, the Mole’s idea would be that Fogs Jnr tries his hand at loosehead. At 28 years old, he’s in his eighth season with Munster, but is light on miles: he’s played 84 games for the provinces, but less than half of these [41, to be precise] have been starts. With Best, Cronin, Varley – and Richardt Strauss come September of this year, when he qualifies for Ireland – all ahead of him, his international hopes are numbered as a hooker. Putting his career with Munster first and making the most of it should be his priority, and improving his versatility to give himself a better chance of selection for more games is one way of going about it.
Obviously it’s a gambit that might not necessarily pay off, because scrummaging at professional level is a highly specialized subject. Still, Fogs isn’t exactly a front-row neophyte: he has played there at a high level for his entire career. With a lot of experience of hooker in the bank, it’s not as though he’s a total greenhorn when it comes to scrummaging. A summer spent learning the tricks of the trade with Paul McCarthy and BJ Botha would be time well spent, in the Mole’s opinion. He wouldn’t have to entirely throw in his hand at hooker; with so much time spent there, some of it [throwing aside, unfortunately] must be hardwired into him. Obviously, horning in on the loosehead racket would get up Horan’s nose, but what harm? He’s an irritable old sod and he’s on the way out anyway!
Winding up – finally! – brings us back to Williams, Gleeson, Holland and Hurley. Look at the dates involved. The players in question were born in 1985-86, meaning that they would have been between 19-20 when Declan Kidney resumed as Munster coach at the start of the 2005-06 season, and 22-23 when he left at the end of the 07-08 season. Dave Ryan [April 86] was another from that era, although he has mercifully been cut after just two starts in three seasons.
Added to the 85-86 crowd, there’s just one 1984-born graduate from the Munster Academy still contracted to the province, winger/fullback Denis Hurley. The Mole actually has quite a bit of time for Hurley, but it’s fair to say that his one test cap was of the softest of soft variety, coming as it did on a tour to the States in 2009 when the great majority of Ireland’s internationals were away in South Africa with the Lions.
Those birth dates [1984-86] neatly bracket the age-group overseen by the academy structures during Kidney’s second stint.
The Mole has no idea how interested Kidney was in the academy. He might have been hugely involved; after all, he had been a schoolteacher for many years and was a very successful underage coach. However, the evidence strongly points to the fact that during his Second Republic, the Munster Academy simply turned out a bunch of duds.