Munster’s Slide – Rock Bottom Or Ready To Relapse?

Mick O’Driscoll leads his team off the pitch at the Liberty Stadium. Munster had just suffered their worst defeat in eight years in his last game for the province he represented more than two hundred times. He deserved better.

The Mole is like a dog with a bone, and that bone is a broken record. Engrish rangruage, forgive-eness preeze

Munster walked into a Liberty Stadium gunfight armed not even with a knife but with an emery board. Outside of Keith Earls, who is looking a better No13 with every single game he plays, they had practically no ordnance with which to put a dent in the Ospreys machine, and the Big O [with apologies to Roy Orbison] rolled right over the top of them on the way to a 45-10 massacre and the Pro12 final. For a team of the stature of Munster, it was the most ignominious end to a season you could ever imagine.

Dirksen is picture perfect as he dives over for one of the Ospreys’ five tries against Munster in the semi-final. The phrase ‘end of an era’ has been bandied about Munster rugby for at least two seasons – maybe even three – but it was a brutal way for Tony McGahan’s stint as coach to end. Nobody likes to lose, but a huge knock-out defeat like that is one that should stick in the craw of the young players who were involved and provide a motivating factor for many seasons.

Memories came flooding back of the 43-9 beating that they put on the Welsh region in the Heineken Cup quarter-final of April 2009. That game was played out in front of a packed Thomond Park on a bright spring afternoon, and a heavyweight Munster pack full of Grand Slamming forwards laid the groundwork for their backs to run up a huge score against the visitors. This time around, the game was played in front of a half-empty Liberty Stadium at dusk, and the roles were reversed. The hammer had become the nail.

A 35-point losing margin is the biggest in a hell of a long time for Munster – a hell of a long time. Toulon beat them 32-16 [16pt margin] in the Stade Felix Mayol in January 2010, and Leinster thrashed them 30-0 [30pt margin] in the RDS back in October 2009. Glasgow Warriors surprisingly put 22 points between the sides with a 32-10 win back in September 2005 and the Ospreys beat them 34-17 [15 pt margin] back in September 2004, but you have to go back all the way to Friday 30 April 2004, when Cardiff whipped them 60-14 [46pt margin] in the Arms Park, to find a bigger loss. This was a historically poor Munster defeat.

“In Transition”

In the immediate aftermath of the game, Daire O’Brien – RTE’s anchor for the post-match discussion – voiced aloud his realization that Munster weren’t ‘in transition’, but instead had to rebuild entirely. I wouldn’t typically be a fan of O’Brien, but in this case I think that he put it succinctly.

The Mole has written before about the assumptions that go with the phrase ‘in transition’, namely that there’s always a guaranteed return to success or previous standing on the other side of the transition period. Unsuccessful teams are generally ‘in transition’. Why wouldn’t they be? Would you want to keep an unsuccessful team together so that they could continue to be unsuccessful as a cogent unit and set new records in failure?

Protectionist Personnel Market

In comparison with Tony McGahan, who had been Declan Kidney’s assistant for two years before taking over as head coach, Rob Penney comes into the job with little baggage. However, on a two-year contract, with all NIE slots already locked down and the IRFU determined to reduce the number of Johnny Foreigners plying their trade on the island, there’s already some baggage waiting for him.

Felix ‘Calamity’ Jones will miss the Ireland tour to New Zealand with another serious injury – this time it’s surgery on the shoulder injury he picked up in the build-up to the Pro12 semi-final. Maybe he’s not built for pro rugby, maybe he has just been unlucky or maybe he’s the victim of poor strength and conditioning advice … whatever it is, he’s always injured. If he’s the poster-boy for interprovincial movement, he’s not really going to inspire too many to take the chance. The bottom line is that things haven’t worked out that well.

In terms of a transfer market, Irish rugby is distinctly protectionist. There’s very little movement between provinces, with the exception of a few players going to and from Connacht. The last Leinster player to leave the set-up for either Ulster or Munster was Felix Jones, who left Dublin at the end of the 2008-09 season for life in Limerick, and Leinster haven’t brought in a player from Munster since Trev Hogan and Stephen Keogh moved at the end of the 2005-06 season. While there are currently three former Munster players in the Leinster squad [Eoin Reddan, Sean Cronin and Mike Ross], all three came to Dublin following a period with another club: Reddan with Wasps, Cronin with Connacht and Ross with Harlequins. Isaac Boss was a rare Ulster-to-Leinster transfer [although last season’s stand-in tighthead Simon Shawe was a Ballymena man, and had previously worn the white jersey of his native province], and it’s a hell of a long time since somebody from Dublin went north of the border.

In short, Penney is going to have to work by and large with the existing squad for his first season. Casey Laulala, James Downey and Rotherham openside Sean Dougal will join the province of course, but while he’ll be able to put his mark on the squad with regards to how they play and whom he chooses to select in specific games, The Mole expects that there’ll be more personnel changes after his first year behind the desk.

There’s also the matter of working within the strictures dictated by the IRFU Professional Game Committee. These take quite a while to come to terms with and can be very frustrating for the provincial coaches. Assistant Anthony Foley will already be well familiar with them, and while Penney will doubtless have been informed during his interviewing process of how the national interest takes precedence, he’ll initially need somebody with experience of the system as an adviser and a sounding board.

Strength And Conditioning

Munster have been dreadfully unlucky with injury this season, and their run of misfortune continued to the bitter end. Loosehead prop Darragh Hurley [26] announced his retirement a couple of days ago, but the real kick in the teeth was Denis Leamy hanging up the boots. Leamy broke into the Munster squad very early [and the Ireland squad not too long afterwards] and had a decade-long career filled with medals and trophies, but having to retire at thirty years old is a tough cross to bear.

The Mole doesn’t want to write anything that’d see him up before the beaks, but with the IRFU advertising for a new Strength & Rehab Coach for Munster Rugby and former Munster S&C coach Dr Tom Comyns having recently settled with the union in court, there was clearly a significant difference of opinion between the two parties. Some Munster fans would prefer to believe that they’re just struggling a horrific run of luck – and there’s no doubt that the province has suffered more than its share of misfortune – but issues like the strength and conditioning set-up in the academy, the two training base set-up in Limerick and Cork and the rehab advice that isn’t getting players back on the pitch are too serious to ignore.

Sure, it’s not a whole heap of weight – but you don’t get perfect overhead squat form unless you spend a hell of a lot of time in the weight room. O’Connell is one of the premier athletes in Irish rugby, but while he used to be surrounded by comparable animals in the Munster pack, he’s out on his own now.

In terms of top-end European rugby, Munster are not a physically powerful team. If you compared their pack from No1 to No8 against Ulster, their conquerors in the HEC, you’d probably only pick out Paul O’Connell as a more powerful athlete than his opposite number, Johann Muller; if you made the same comparison against the Ospreys pack that beat them in the Pro12 semi-final, you’d probably say the same thing. They’re certainly not a healthy team in terms of the number of injuries they have picked up over the season. With the outstanding endgame against Northampton at Thomond Park still relatively fresh in the memory, it’d be churlish to criticize their [aerobic] fitness or their endurance, but rugby is a game that demands power, endurance and durability. This season, the province were below par in two of those three aspects.

You can’t help but think that the presence of Paul O’Connell [strained knee ligament against Ulster in a quasi-meaningless Pro12 game the week before], Damien Varley [sprained ankle in the same game] and James ‘Germany’ Caughlin [broken hand against Ulster in the HEC QF] would have given greater oomph to the team against the Ospreys and made it a more equal contest up front. However, it probably wouldn’t have been enough. The Ospreys have a core of forwards who have been long-term members of the Welsh national set up, and at the moment there’s no Northern Hemisphere international team more powerful than the Welsh.

Munster used to be able to call on the prodigious inert strength of John Hayes, weights-monster Jerry Flannery and the incredible explosive power of David Wallace – with 2006-09 Denis Leamy not too far behind Wallace in the athleticism stakes – to complement O’Connell; with those three players absent, they look an increasingly understrength pack.

Send In The Order For Gold Watches …

Flannery announced his retirement in late March and within the next couple of months, three more veterans of the 2008 Heineken Cup-winning squad had followed suit.

  • David Wallace [35 years old, 72 Irish caps, 197 Munster caps]
  • Denis Leamy [30 years old, 57 Irish caps, 145 Munster caps]
  • Jerry Flannery [33 years old, 41 Irish caps, 93 Munster caps]
  • Mick O’Driscoll [33 years old, 23 Irish caps, 203 Munster caps]

It’s difficult to know whether Jerry Flannery’s efforts in the weight-room partially contributed to his recurring calf injuries. In contrast to a naturally massive man like John Hayes, Flannery built a huge amount of muscle in the gym, and while his injuries manifested themselves on the pitch, they generally weren’t the result of collisions or impacts.

Of these four, only Mick O’Driscoll has had complete control over the end of his rugby career; the other three have had retirement forced on them by injury. Flannery’s injury problems date back a full two and a half years, and while it might seem callous, The Mole always assumed that the announcement of his retirement was a matter of ‘when’, rather than ‘if’.

Denis Leamy’s was a different situation: he’s almost three years younger than Flannery, and while he’d had an extremely bad run with injuries, he didn’t seem to have one chronic problem: he’d had shoulder surgery [summer 2008], two knee surgeries [November 2008 and December 2009] and hip surgery [January 2012], and it was ultimately the last of these injuries that put paid to his career. Because he had managed to make it back from those previous injuries – albeit as a diminished player – it seemed likely that he’d be back in the saddle after the hip surgery. In contrast, Flannery had returned from his calf injury three times and twice lasted mere minutes before missing months and months more rugby. You knew that it’d be the calf that’d knock him out of the game. With Leamy, you simply didn’t know.

Wallace’s is a different story again. Even at 35, he was in exceptional physical condition and looked to be set to play a major role in Ireland’s RWC11. It’s impossible to know if the knee injury resulting from Manu Tuilagi’s tackle would have ended the career of a 25-year old Wallace, or if his relatively advanced age had a significant detrimental effect on his recuperation. His career had already extended past the marks of the great English back rowers of his generation: Lewis Moody retired at 33 years old, Richard Hill, Neil Back, Martin Corry and Joe Worsley at 34 years old and Lawrence Dallaglio at 35.

The New Broom  

The new coach has a lot of work to do. We’ve already covered the limitations within the Irish system of acquiring new players above; with no impact whatsoever on recruitment, Penney is going to have to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of the existing squad and then figure out a game plan that plays to the former and camouflages the latter.

Rob Penney has more clear-out work to do before he can put his own stamp on the team

There’s little doubt that he has been doing his homework on his new team – he’s already saying all the right things. However, circumstances are always different on the ground, and The Mole feels that he’ll be a little surprised with the age profile of the group, and in particular the massive gap in experience between the two distinct parties: the veterans [O’Gara, O’Connell, O’Callaghan, Coughlan, Horan, Howlett and Botha] and the young bloods [O’Mahony, Murray, Sherry and Zebo].

From the evidence of this season, Horan [34] and O’Callaghan [33] are on their way out as serious forces; Botha [32] and Howlett [34] join them as highly experienced internationals contracted for just the first season of the new regime. O’Gara has said in the recent past that he’ll play until he’s thirty-eight – that’d be another three seasons – but who knows if that’s just a number picked out of the air or if he has set his formidable will to keep that date.

While Botha is in situ, Penney can count on a decent scrum, but behind him in the depth chart there’s nothing solid. With the IRFU fatwa on foreign tightheads, that’s a serious worry. New Zealand legend Sean Fitzpatrick questioned the thinking behind the contracting of foreign test tightheads to Irish provinces recently, and Munster are skating on thin ice as they go into their second consecutive season with two first-choice NIE props. The province has produced an abundance of hookers for Irish U20 teams in recent years, but virtually no props. 23-year old loosehead Dave Kilcoyne was bizarrely mentioned at a recent Irish press conference by Declan Kidney on the back of one start in the Pro12, and while he looks a promising player, every young prop looks good until he’s made to look bad. It’s a different position when you’re scrummaging against the likes of Adam Jones, Mike Ross and John Afoa.

Dave Foley is by many accounts a cracking second row prospect, but at 24 years old he needs to start making the move from ‘prospect’ to ‘contender’. It might be that he needs to move away from his home province in order to get sufficient gametime. At this stage of his career, gametime is more important for its improvement purposes than for its exposure purposes.

Second row prospects Dave Foley and Ian Nagle are similarly undercooked. Leinster behemoth ‘Big’ Dev Toner is 25 years old and has played 97 times for his province; Foley is 24 and has played just 7 games for his. He recently opted for a one-year deal in lieu of the two year contract offered, intimating that if he doesn’t get a decent shot next season he’ll be out the door.

These are the sort of performance question-marks that hang over a number of Munster’s youngsters, and because Munster lack the middle generation of 25-29 year olds, these questions are more pointed and more important than in Ulster or Leinster.

Lost Generation

While Leinster and Ulster have teams stacked with high-performing internationals in that 25-29 age group [Sexton, Kearney, McFadden, O’Brien, Heaslip, McLaughlin, Toner and Cronin in Leinster and Trimble, Cave, Ferris, Henry, Tuohy and Best in Ulster], Munster lack the players to successfully handle any smooth ‘transition’ in their squad. They’ve been forced to skip a generation [so to speak] and hand over important roles in their team from a bunch of players in the early-to-mid-thirties to a bunch of players in their early-to-mid-twenties. Again, just like the dog and his broken record, The Mole’s going to link to another recent article about this rather than run through the whole argument again, despite the fact that self-reference is no reference at all.

The lads who should be the mainstay of the team at the moment – even if they’re not quite of the same calibre as their predecessors – simply aren’t there. At precisely the age that they should be taking over leadership roles in the team, Tomás O’Leary [28] is shipping out to London Irish, Denis Fogarty [28] is Stade Aurillacois Cantal Auvergne-bound, Tom Gleeson [26] has quietly eased himself out of the professional game, Denis Hurley [27] and Billy Holland [26] don’t even make the matchday 23 in an injury-ravaged squad and the luckless Daragh Hurley [26], Barry Murphy, Ian Dowling [both 29] and Leamy [30] have all had to prematurely retire due to injury.

Tomás O’Leary is stretchered off after breaking his ankle against Llanelli in late April 2009. The injury meant that he missed the Lions tour to South Africa, and he has rarely shown his best form since. Peter Stringer will return to Munster from loan spells at Saracens and Newcastle, and the relatively untried Duncan Williams will hope to prove that he has what it takes to be a viable scrum-half option at Pro12 and HEC level, rather than just in the British & Irish Cup.

There were very high hopes for many of these players. Leamy won more than 50 caps for Ireland and was a genuine standout in the 2006 and 2007 Six Nations as a No8; O’Leary was selected for the Lions in 2009 and was Declan Kidney’s first choice Irish scrum-half for 2009-11; Ian Dowling started two Heineken Cup finals, and won them both; Barry Murphy looked at one stage like he’d be a genuinely international-class centre; Denis Hurley started the 2008 Heineken Cup final as a 23-year old fullback, and Denis Fogarty was coming off the bench regularly as a 22 year old hooker in the winning 2005-06 HEC campaign.

Look at the starting backline [below] that took the pitch against the Ospreys: even taking into account that Ivan Dineen was a late call-up from the subs bench when Felix Jones [24, Leinster Academy] injured his shoulder in training, there’s not a single back between the age of 25-29 in the entire backline that is a homegrown Munster player. That’s a five year spread for just one player in the backline.

  • Johne Murphy [27, Leicester Academy]
  • Ivan Dineen [24, UCC/Cork Constitution]
  • Keith Earls [24, Munster Academy]
  • Lifeimi Mafi [29, Wellington]
  • Simon Zebo [21, Munster Academy]
  • Ian Keatley [25, Leinster Academy]
  • Conor Murray [23, Munster Academy]

Denis Hurley’s excellent form from October through to January was wasted by an unusually poor series of selections at fullback from Tony McGahan. Welcoming in an undercooked Felix Jones and undermining the fragile confidence of Hurley by picking him out of position on the right wing hurt Munster quite badly this season, certainly did absolutely nothing for the form of Denis Hurley.

While there’s no doubting the talent of the likes of O’Mahony, Sherry, Murray, Earls and Zebo, talent alone doesn’t win you trophies. If it did, the Leinster team that featured four of Ireland’s top five try-scorers [O’Driscoll, Hickie, Horgan and Dempsey] and three IRB International Player of the Year Nominees in midfield [Contepomi, D’Arcy and O’Driscoll] would have bagged some more pots in the middle of the last decade.

The Long Build

Alan Quinlan was in the Munster team for a decade before they won the Heineken Cup, as was Anthony Foley; O’Gara debuted in European competition in 1997 alongside John ‘Rags’ Kelly and Anthony Horgan, with John Hayes, David Wallace, Mick O’Driscoll, Peter Stringer and Donncha O’Callaghan making the step up in 1998. Marcus Horan debuted the year after those five. Of those eleven players, only Foley, Rags and Horgan are long gone, the first two having retired at the end of the 2006-07 season and Hoggy hanging on for a try-scoring finale in 2008-09. Quinlan played his last match just over a year ago, Hayes at Christmas, and both Wallace and Micko have only recently announced their retirements.

Munster have a hell of a history in the Heineken Cup, but they aren’t all good memories. They had to lose two finals before they won their first … and there aren’t too many survivors from those teams of last decade who first established them as finalists,  then winners.

They had to play an awful lot of games before they won the big prize in Europe, an awful lot of games. All of those lads listed above had been playing for Munster for a minimum of seven years before they became a team capable of winning European gold. Seven of them have retired, and the four who haven’t [O’Gara, Stringer, O’Callaghan and Horan] clearly don’t have very much time left.

Expectations based on the performances of radically different personnel seem to be a bit of a problem amongst the Munster fan base. The ‘handing down the jersey’ and ‘only taking care of the shirt’ talk might be good for the Munster brand [strike that, it’s obviously good for the brand] – and it might really work for some players if there has been a particularly inspiring player in that position before them, and they grew up absolutely mad about the game –  but you need to bring your own talent and experience to the pitch. You might be wearing Donal Lenihan’s or Paul O’Connell’s number on your back, but just because you’re the Munster No5, it doesn’t mean you’re a great player. Hell, it doesn’t mean you’re even a decent professional. You’re just a guy wearing a red jersey with No5 on the back of it. Paul O’Connells don’t come along every day.

Mystery Train

The Mole has no idea what to expect from Munster next season – neither in terms of performances nor results. While a number of new players got their first real taste of extended gametime in McGahan’s last year, a new coaching, conditioning and managerial team will be getting a feel for the pace and rhythm of the club and the season.

Clubs are always turning over players on a season-by-season basis, but Munster are turning over a particularly high number this season. You only have to look at their squad page to see the scale of the clear-out: Peter Borlase, Will Chambers, Declan Cusack, Jerry Flannery, Denis Fogarty, Tom Gleeson, John Hayes, Darragh Hurley, Denis Leamy, Lifeimi Mafi, Mick O’Driscoll, Tomás O’Leary and David Wallace. All gone.

There are questions over so many players and units. What position will Munster’s best young players, Peter O’Mahony and Keith Earls, be selected in? O’Mahony has played all across the backrow this season, and while Earls has exclusively been selected at No13, the contracting of former All Black Casey Laulala [a dedicated No13], throws a bit of a spanner in the works. Somebody is going to miss out, be it Earls, Howlett, Laulala or Zebo … and you’d have to think that it’s going to be the last of them, Munster’s most exciting discovery this season. There seems to be a lack of joined-up thinking between recruitment and selection, which is perhaps forgivable with a new head coach coming in; it’s certainly not ideal, though.

ROG – if he’s playing like he did before Christmas, picking him is a no-brainer. If he’s playing like he did after Christmas, selection becomes a serious issue. Not being selected at No10 for Ireland was a big deal for him, and you get the feeling that not being selected at No10 for Munster would be a deal-breaker.

Is Penney going to look at guys like Niall Ronan and James Coughlan – good club players, but guys who have never really played much test rugby – and decide that they’re worth their place, or will he ease them to the side a little to give more opportunities to younger players like Paddy Butler, Tommy O’Donnell and Sean Dougal? Who’s he going to go with at fullback: Felix Jones, Denis Hurley or Sean Scanlon? Is ROG going to start every big match? Who will emerge as Penney’s favourites, his go-to men?

They’re only selection issues. How will Munster play? If Munster don’t have the pack to play ten-man rugby, is O’Gara’s future certain? Will they have the set-pieces to compete in Europe? Who’s going to be the new attack coach?
It’s going to be a fascinating season!
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8 thoughts on “Munster’s Slide – Rock Bottom Or Ready To Relapse?

  1. Good, perceptive article. You certainly have captured the essence of the task facing Penney and Munster.

    A few questions I would ask, is the influence of ROG and POC off the playing field too great? Has the influx of SH coaching staff been short-term in focus and remote from what were in fact the foundations of Munster – the club structures?

    I agree 100% with the issues you raise re the fitness/conditioning set-up.

  2. Great article, but now, and I hope in the light hearted yet semi serious manner in which the blog is intended i fully aim to roam right off the subject.

    What you said about Daire O’Brien, i don’t think you said enough.
    Watching the rabo final on RTE was just about the weirdest and most nauseating thing to happen in rugby since Andrew Trimble’s attempt at facial coiffure, which admittedly wasn’t that long go. Every time Lenister got a turnover or went through a handful of phases Lenihan would just wax on about how great they where, as if he’d just seen this this rugby thing for the first time. A rugby legend he may be, but he’s no great shake as a commentator.

    Shaggy’s a smart and nice guy, i’ve no problems listeing to him, popey likewise, but O’Shea doesn’t give any good insight considering he’s the head honcho of a prem team and O’Brien is either nasty or moronic, without ever being funny. For all McGurk and Hook’s stupidity they’re funny more often that not.

    I happen to live in the north of the island where the beeb shows all ulsters rabo home games live and although he’s completely one sided Jim Neilly is a great laugh. He cracks me up once or twice on average every game with his exasperation and left field references. The whole idea of getting ex players and dolts who couldn’t commentate on a bum fight to talk over the crowd and game noise can, Im pretty sure make you go def or insane or both.

    Btw, sorry to Trimble who took flack for doing nothing wrong and also,
    within your last blog:
    “Dirksen isn’t quite electric – despite the Rutger-Hauer-in-Blade Runner shock of blond hair.”
    When you can do something as well as this you really ought to be getting paid to do it.

  3. “I’ve had a really good look at Munster’s style. It’s not a style that I’m a massive fan of but it’s been effective for them over the years. They are going through a transition. They’ve had a core group of players together for about 10-11 years. They’ve had a really tight group, a passionate group.”I hope to be able to add some value around the style of play that they are going to go forward with because results from them more recently haven’t been where they would like them to be. They are all aware change is needed and hopefully I’m in a position to facilitate that.”

    http://www.stuff.co.nz/marlborough-express/sport/7013213/Top-coach-heads-to-Ireland

    • That’s a very interesting article. Penny seems like a good fit for Munster at this stage and the more I hear from him the more impressed I am by the man. His record tells its own tale but it’s his own words that are most instructive.

  4. With regard to the soft middle, it is not in and of itself a bad thing if the players in the 25-29 age-group are not of the highest quality, or have been replaced by better players. Murray is better than O’Leary (though perhaps not 08-09 O’Leary). Sherry is better than Fogarty. Earls is better than Gleeson and Murphy. Zebo is better than Dowling (though not defensively). Daragh Hurley could have been good, we’ll never know. Billy Holland is a squad player. Dennis Hurley has been unfortunate with injury and selection. 05-09 era Leamy is irreplaceable, but Coughlan isn’t too bad, and Butler appears to have everything other than bulk. Obviously something went very wrong in selection, coaching and conditioning in the period 09-12 for all those players not to have fulfilled their early promise or to have been invalided out of the game.

    In reference to your earlier article, I don’t see how the blame can be pinned on Kidney who brought them into his squads or teams early on, as their stasis or decline occurred after he was gone. Though perhaps you are party to some insider knowledge.

  5. Pingback: Willie Anderson on the VCR | Whiff of Cordite

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