Lost in Transition

It’ll take more than the old “banana in the tailpipe” routine, but it’s a good place to start.

There are a few phrases that are innocuous but dangerous. They say one thing and imply a lot more. “Soft landing” springs to mind. In rugby, “in transition” is another.

England have been a team “in transition” for the best part of a decade under five different coaches in the aftermath of their 2003 Grand Slam and World Cup win. Martin Johnson’s RWC quarter final selection included four players who played in the 2003 final. Stuart Lancaster’s team that played France in the Six Nations five months later did not include any. Even Johnson’s appointment as manager was due to his 2003 captaincy. England weren’t in transition for the nine years post-2003. They were hungover.

“In transition” implies that an entity is moving from one defined state to another defined state. A change is being undertaken. When the change is complete, the entity will be fully formed, and probably improved. In a rugby context, it’s a way of saying that a team isn’t as good as it used to be and that important players have retired or no longer make the same impact as they did at their peak. However, those players are in the process of being replaced and when that replacement is complete, the team will be as good as they used to be but will have different faces.

While supporters get behind the jersey, it is the fifteen players wearing the shirts who decide the winning or losing of the game. If they’re off form, or simply not good enough, the jersey won’t win the game. Munster’s standard was lowered by the Ulster men and that is a big psychological shift. The chance to extract a measure of revenge comes on the 5th of May but by that stage an Afoa-less Ulster may be in the Heineken Cup final. The empire needs some new clothes and some new bodies to wear them.

At the moment Munster are a team in transition. We’re told that these things are cyclical. Like Man United have been cyclical for 18 seasons. Hmm. What we haven’t been told is what Munster are transitioning to. The appointment of their coach for next season is a very interesting topic. There’s been a lot of high profile names linked to the job which is both highly pressurised and subject to interference from the governing body and paymasters. It’s well known that McGahan resented the IRFU’s interfering approach.  That is unlikely to change any time soon and certainly not while Declan Kidney remains in charge of the national team. The fans also demand success, particularly in the Heineken Cup and even more particularly that Leinster are in such a rich vein of form and Ulster have upped their game. “Nothing so undermines your judgement as the sight of your neighbour getting rich,” wrote JP Morgan in 1905. A century on and nothing has changed. Munster’s next coach will also have to deal with O’Gara’s exit. Whether he goes quietly in to the night (ha!) or has to be forcibly dropped, the maestro is on the downhill stretch of his career.

Despite the many names linked to the job, among them Wayne Smith and Nick Mallett, there have been precious few who have declared an interest. Tana Umaga is the latest name linked to the role which is difficult to credit. The always enjoyable Alan Quinlan wrote a thinly veiled puff piece for old mucker Anthony Foley in the Munster Romanticisers Gazette last Wednesday. Foley looks the man for the job. He’s young enough, hungry enough and has undertaken his coaching apprenticeship over the last few years. Always renowned as a superbly knowledgeable player, it’s difficult to see what Foley needs to find out over the next two years that he doesn’t know now.

The exit of O’Gara will provoke a change in the way Munster play because no one will be able to replicate his kicking ability. Allied to the fact that it will be fittingly dramatic, it’ll need a strong character with a lot of Munster capital to manage the exit and keep the emphasis on the team rather than the Grande Dame of Irish rugby. Foley’s ligindary status and cussed nature makes him more capable than most of making the call. The question then is what sort of style he will concentrate on. Raised on Munster Cup rugby and honed by mauling teams into submission, Foley’s Munster are likely to transition into a hard-eyed cup team with a bit of edge. Some change.

8 thoughts on “Lost in Transition

  1. I’m looking forward to the day when a fully fit and ready to play Ronan O’Gara is not named at no. 10 for a Munster Heineken Cup game. Not out of any dislike of the man, I’ve always been a huge admirer of his. Nor out of any animosity towards Munster, as while I may be a Leinster fan I’m not that much of a blue-eyed one that I’d rather see Munster performing badly at the expense of Irish rugby as a whole. No, it’s because the shadow the man casts over rugby in Munster is now so long that that day will represent a seismic shift in rugby in this country, if you’ll forgive my mixed metaphors. If Rog is intent on playing on for another three years at least then you can be ensure he intends to be first choice. His interest in Munster’s transition is a cursory one and he has no intention of going quietly into the night, though that’s not an unusual position for players towards the end of their careers. For that reason alone I think Foley may have to be the man for the top job.

    If I was a Munster fan what I’d ideally want would be a head coach with a proven record of developing quality back-play to dovetail with Foley’s talents as assistant. The need for a man with ligindary status to handle the broom may just scupper that.

  2. Great article, Mole. There are no guarantees in rugby. There are certainly no guarantees when the bulk of your great retiring team came up through club rugby, and you are putting your hope in your next great team coming through an entirely different system. Is it realistic to expect the same results with two totally different methods of preparation?

  3. Good article and some food for thought. It seems as if Rob Penney, headcoach of the Canterbury NPC side, has been linked in NZ with the job http://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/rugby/provincial/6747874/Top-coach-Rob-Penney-in-line-for-Munster-job . Kiwi friends rate him very highly and have been confused as to why he’s been passed over for the available S15 jobs over the last few years. He might have something to prove should he be offered the Munster job, chips on the shoulder have always been a precious attribute round Limerick!

    Regarding Foley, his work has been very impressive to date, both with the “A” side and as Defensive/Forwards coach. That said, there is a need from time to time for fresh insight and a look at the senior coaching staff of Munster shows that almost all of those involved have been either coaches or players in the set-up since 2006. Penney might bring some much needed freshness of ideas and approach. I don’t think that Foley would be a bad choice as head coach, but can see the benefit of a fresh pair of eyes. McGahan has made a good start at rebuilding a squad, but I don’t think he was ever quite able to make his style of play work effectively with Munster. Hopefully his successor can continue the rebuilding job but also impose a more effective rugby ethos on the team. There is the potentially an excellent squad there, but it needs to be managed and coached to deliver on that potential.

    Umaga was an unmitigated disaster during his time at Toulon, no thank you. Penney as head coach with Foley as number two ideal outcome for me. Foley has plenty of time on his hands and will surely be lined up as Gert Smal’s replacement in another couple of years.

    • At first glance Penney looks like a good option. I don’t really know anything about the guy, but his record is very impressive, coaching Canterbury to 4 in a row in the Air New Zealand/ITM Cup. And as you say, he’ll have something to prove.

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