Maintaining a Lean Squad

Munster SquadMunster typically carry the heaviest squad of the Irish provinces, and their senior panel for the 2018-19 season conforms to type. No fewer than 48 players are listed in the first team squad. That’s a lot of mouths to feed – both in terms of a pay check and in terms of gametime. 

This part of the year is a good time to take stock of how a squad is shaping up: it’s 15 games in, just over halfway through the regular season [21 Pro14 league games and 6 European Cup pool stage games give 27 scheduled competitive fixtures]. It’s worth bearing in mind that 15 games equates to 1200 minutes of gametime, and the key metrics used in this article as diagnostic tools are starts and minutes.   

Why is it relevant to look at squad size? 

Firstly, because players get paid. It’s their job. A bigger squad equals more employees; more employees means more money going out of the organisation.

All jobs are different, and being a professional rugby player has its own peculiarities in terms of employment. There’s a lot that goes into the job other than performance on matchday – on-pitch training, both team, unit and individual work-ons; strength and conditioning in the gym and on the track; nutrition planning throughout the season; review and study of past/upcoming opponents, tactics and strategies; psychological conditioning; rest – but when it comes to an assessment of a player’s value, by far the most important metric is their performance in matches. All the other parts of the job are undertaken to optimise players’ performance in matches. If you’re absolutely shredded but can’t hold on to the pill, Instagram is a better line of work than rugby. You can pay players to train and not play them, but it’s a very poor use of money. Training doesn’t bring any money into the organisation. Nobody pays twenty or thirty quid to see Munster train, they pay to see them play. 

Secondly, players want to play. In the northern hemisphere, this is most sharply exemplified on Lions tours. Happy tours, like 1997 and 2009, came to pass when players were kept involved en masse for as long as possible; unhappy tours, like 1993, 2001 and 2005, when a ‘them and us’ split between the weekend side and the midweek dirt-trackers became manifestly obvious, occurred due to poor man-management. 

Players who don’t get to play at the level they think they’re capable of get disillusioned, or plain dissatisfied. Peter Stringer spoke candidly about it in a 2015 interview with John O’Sullivan in the Irish Times. 

Those are the two major reasons to look at squad size, and they are both fundamental to the wellbeing of the club: firstly, its financial state as a business, and secondly its morale as an organisation. 

What To Look For? Bloody Numbers

What are the logical numbers to look for when counting squad personnel? 45 players give three full teams’ worth [3 x 15] and 46 gives two full matchday squads [2 x 23]. If you take the first as an abstraction, it gives you a squad three deep in every position, which might be a satisfying aesthetic formula, but doesn’t necessarily take into the account the physical demands of different positions or the fact that some players are capable of playing more than one position. Two matchday 23s [i.e. a 46-strong squad] would seem to respond better to the realities of competition [having outside backs and backrowers who can cover more than one position, for example], but it can leave you a little heavy with specialists … lots of front rowers, scrum-halves and outhalves, and not necessarily enough games to go around. 

Ian Nagle_Ulster

Nagle [1+0, 71 mins at Leinster in 2018-19] wasn’t getting sufficient gametime at Leinster to make his stint there worthwhile, either for his own career or for Leinster’s economic playbook. The eastern province send two locks to Ireland [Devin Toner and James Ryan] so carrying a deep second row corps in the squad – six strong at the start of the season – might have seemed prudent, but it quickly became apparent that it was one too many. 

Ulster carry 42 players, including the on-loan Ian Nagle. As we wrote recently, Dan McFarland has overseen something of a clearout in the first half of this season, and has been pushing academy players for selection in the Pro14.  Leinster have 44 on their books, although for the second half of the season it will effectively be 42, having sent Nagle north and Tom Daly to ConnachtConnacht have 44 players in their senior squad, 45 with the addition of Daly.

 

Racing list 41 players in their squad , while Clermont  and Toulouse each have an ‘effectif’ 42-strong. Those teams play a 26 game regular season in the Top 14, five games more than the Pro14. Arguably they play too many games, but the French have had a league structure for a long time and are diligent in rotating their forwards [in particular] into and out of the starting lineup. The next time you hear an Irish pundit talk about the ‘big squads’ of the French outfits, remember that these squads aren’t actually bigger … they just have better players in the second and third positions of their depth charts. 

In England, Saracens carry 44 players. Exeter list 64 in their playing staff, but make no distinction between academy and senior players. They’ve got 17 lads listed on their squad page who were born in the period 1997-2000, and given that both Munster [Sean O’Connor, Shane Daly] and Leinster [Conor O’Brien, Hugo Keenan] have players in their academy born in 1996, it seems fair to draw a line at 1997 and make that the division between junior and senior players. 

Who’s Who, What’s What

The Mole wanted to get an accurate idea of who was carrying the water in Munster this season, with particularly reference to starts and minutes played. There are always certain players who go under the radar to all but the province’s fans: they keep the candle lit through November, March and February where the attention of most rugby supporters turns to the international game. But there are also a coterie of players who are on the outside looking in, who don’t find the selection cards falling their way and who are confined to the fringes of the squad. 

These players would select themselves if they could. They want to play. The purpose of this article isn’t to ‘name and shame’ players who don’t get a lot of games; on the other hand, it’d be ridiculous to avoid mentioning specific players on the basis of assumed sensitivity. The information on minutes played and matches started is all in the public realm … it’s already out there. The Mole’s interest, the reason behind this article, is in assembling it, reflecting on it and then attempting to identify problems or issues in the squad make-up.

[Almost] Seven Years Later

“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 … 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.

… 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.”

The Mole wrote the above about seven years ago. It’s handy for this article that Munster’s first team squad is currently running at exactly the same number as it was in the 2011-12 season, but it’s frustrating at the same time. The same problems are there – a bloated squad, not enough gametime to go around, and overly limited opportunities for academy players. This inefficient method of running a squad just isn’t optimal for Irish rugby, at any level. The results are little better than adequate, there’s too much money going out, and players progressing at too slow a pace.

A Long, Long List

 

 

Rory Scannell_Munster

Rory Scannell has been a success story since entering the Munster Academy. The No12 jersey had proved practically impossible for Munster to fill from within for a decade, but he was given early chances in 2015 as a 21 year old, and by January 2016 was the starting inside centre in Munster’s final two European Cup pool games. It looked like there was a plan for him, and he lived up to his side of the bargain. 

The list makes for interesting reading. Two players have played over 800 minutes, both of them backs, both of them eligible to play for Ireland: fullback Mike Haley [12+0, 881 mins] and inside centre Rory Scannell [11+2, 825 mins]. It’s pertinent to note that both players have started all of their respective games in a single position: No12 for Scannell and No15 for Haley. As we have said before, and said so often that it’d be more accurate to say ‘harped on’ before, versatility gets you into a squad, specificity gets you on the team. 

 

The younger of the brothers Scannell, Rory has been an ever-present in the Munster three-quarter line for the last three seasons, averaging 1720 mins/season over that period. In contrast, Haley is a new arrival. His repeated selections in the first half of this season strongly suggest that he was a good pick up for the province; he has won coach van Graan’s confidence and has become an automatic selection in a short period of time. Simon Zebo’s departure was always going leave a sizeable gap, and while Haley hasn’t contributed in the same manner as the man he has replaced, his performances have been of a generally high standard. 

The four players who have played over 700 minutes surprised The Mole: Peter O’Mahony is third in the entire squad [10+0, 754 mins], followed by fellow current internationals Tadhg Beirne [9+1, 712 mins], Darren Sweetnam [9+0, 711 mins] and Andy Conway [9+2, 703 mins].

Seven players have played over 600 minutes, including three of Munster’s four NIQ forwards:

  • Jean Kleyn [9+2, 654 mins]
  • Arno Botha [7+5, 652 mins]
  • Stephen Archer [8+5, 637 mins]
  • Chris Cloete [9+1, 634 mins]
  • Dave Kilcoyne [8+5, 629 mins]
  • C.J. Stander [8+0, 625 mins]
  • Sam Arnold [7+5, 601 mins]

Munster’s first-choice guys play loads of games and loads of minutes, so why do they carry such a big squad? It’s the key question. 

How Deep Is Too Deep?

The Mole has commented on it before – and he wasn’t the first – but there are some serious issues with Munster’s squad make-up. The first is the incredible number of halfbacks they have on the books: just the ten of them. 

With five scrum halves [Murray, Williams, Mathewson, Cronin and Hart] and five out-halves [Carbery, Hanrahan, Bleyendaal, Johnson and Keatley] in their first team squad, the province are heavily overloaded in both positions. It’s inefficient to carry all those players in the same position, and it has a detrimental effect on the squad. Either you pick the same guys frequently to allow them to build effective partnerships and get the benefit of time under tension [and thus freeze out the remainder of players], or you try to split the games more equably and have the tail wagging the dog … by trying to keep everyone happy, you make nobody happy. 

And, key to the point, is the fact that nine of these ten players – the exception being the centrally contracted Conor Murray – are on Munster’s wage roll. It’s burning money in a manner that’d make Arlene Foster blink. They’re paying them and get little out of them. 

Ian Keatley_Ireland vs Italy

Johann van Graan has closed the door on Ian Keatley this season. Keatley is 31 years old, with 180 [127+53] Munster appearances under his belt; prior to his stint in red, he made 75 appearances [68+7] for Connacht. A very experienced outhalf with test caps, and one still in his physical prime, taking him out of the roster and reducing him to holding the bags in training has doubtless been difficult for the coach and brutal for the player. Keatley played 671 minutes before Christmas last season, starting three of Munster’s four European games in that period; this season he has played less than 74 minutes over four games, all of them as a substitute in the league. 

Guys like Bleyendaal and Ian Keatley may not be at the top of their respective games at the moment, but they’re not cheap either. Bleyendaal signed a two-year extension in the middle of the 2016-17 season, a season he finished as the Players’ Player of the Year on the back of 25 starts in the outhalf jersey. Keatley is now in the second year of a deal signed in May 2017 when he had just passed 150 Munster caps and become the second player in the province’s history to score 1000 points. While Bleyendaal’s rise had come at his expense, the former Belvedere man had featured against Italy in the Six Nations that year prior to re-signing, and was thus well-positioned to negotiate a decent deal.

 

Keatley has now been firmly frozen out [0+4, 74 minutes this season], and Bleyendaal has had to write off another significant chunk of his career to injury: he has played just 11 games [8+3, 598 mins] over the last season and a half. Bill Johnson [2+1, 133 minutes] is confined to the fringes, having seen Joey Carbery [just 15 months older than him] parachuted ahead of him into what was already a congested field. 

Scrum-half is even more congested: as well as the five guys in the first team squad, Munster have two youngsters in the academy in Jack Stafford and Craig Casey. That’s seven scrum-halves on the books. It’s difficult to look at that with anything other than raised eyebrows. 

New Zealand international Alby Mathewson was signed as a short-term medical joker to stand in for Conor Murray in late August. Mathewson’s contract was extended mid-November, and within ten days of that news, Murray was back in competitive action for his province. 

Alby Mathewson_Munster

Alby Mathewson was signed too late to feature in the first four games of Munster’s season. Murray’s specific injury may have been a secret, but the fact that he was injured wasn’t. Munster had three fit scrumhalves in their first team squad for the season opener, including a veteran of 9 seasons and 150 games, so the basis of Mathewson’s signing was questionable. The basis of his retention for a second short-term contract – the sixth NIQ/NIE player in Munster’s squad, and the fifth scrum-half in the senior squad – is nonsensical. 

Mathewson’s work permit didn’t clear for four weeks, so Neil Cronin started the first two games of the season [against the Cheetahs and Glasgow], with James Hart on the bench for the first and veteran Duncan Williams for the second. Cronin picked up a knock against Glasgow, so Williams then started the next two Pro14 games in September [against the Ospreys and Cardiff] with Hart on the bench for the first and Jack Stafford on the bench for the second. 

 

Stafford had made his senior debut the previous season under Erasmus and was turning out on a weekly basis through mid-September to mid October for the ‘A’ side in the Celtic Cup. He was clearly fit and available for selection. And to add another scrum-half into the mix, Stafford was backed up in most of those Celtic Cup games by former Irish U20 scrum-half John Poland, who made three starts in the 2016 U20 Six Nations alongside the likes of James Ryan, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Porter. 

So at the time of Mathewson’s arrival, Munster had the then 25 year old Cronin, 27 year old Hart and 32 year old Williams fit and available for selection in the first team squad, as well as the 21 year old Stafford in the academy and 22-year old Poland turning out for the ‘A’ side. As it turned out, Mathewson picked up a short term injury in the league game against Leinster at Lansdowne Road, and Williams ended up starting – and turning in accomplished performances – against Exeter and Gloucester in the European Cup. Murray’s return saw the Irish international back into the starting lineup for the back-to-back games against Castres. The ultimate result is that Mathewson hasn’t started a game in Europe, and has only played 44 mins in the competition, those appearances both coming off the bench in facile wins in Thomond Park. Could they have done it without him? Yes. Contracting a medical joker in that situation was dubious and should have been nixed at IRFU level, especially as it pushed Munster up to six NIQs. Injury is a feature of rugby at all levels of the game, and it often plays a roll in providing opportunities to players who would otherwise be overlooked.

Kilcoyne_Ryan_Munster

Munster have eight contracted props in their first team squad. For a team that only has occasional losses of two players to international duty [on on each side of the scrum], that’s quite a deep propping corps. Kilcoyne makes his fair share of November tests and the occasional summer tour [Argentina in 2014, the US and Japan in 2017], but hasn’t played in the Six Nations since 2013, the death rattle of the Declan Kidney era. He’s on the fringes of the Irish squad and has been available to play four to six games for his province in February and March of the last five years.

Backrow Confusion, Featuring Jack O’Donoghue

Carrying eight back rows seems reasonable when you have two Irish starters in O’Mahony and Stander … but O’Mahony has played the third most minutes of any Munster player this season, and Stander the twelfth* most [*the eighth most at the time of writing this paragraph, before the recent Ulster fixture]. It turns out that they’re not sitting out loads of games because of the IRFU’s player management deal. And with two NIQ backrowers in the squad in Cloete and Botha – who are in theory available for every match of the season – there’s not a huge number of minutes to go around. 

34 of the 45 starts available across the backrow have been divvied up between O’Mahony [10+0], Cloete [9+1], Stander [8+0], and Botha [7+5]. The remainder have been split between Tommy O’Donnell [5+4, 372 mins], Dave O’Callaghan [2+0, 120 mins], Fineen Wycherly [3+5, 334 mins – two of his three starts have been at blindside, the other in the row] with one each going to openside Conor Oliver [1+1, 76 mins] and academy member Gavin Coombes [1+4, 151 mins]. 

O’Callaghan signed a one year extension in March of this year, having missed the first half of that season. He started three games in the period spanning February to April 2018, and has played in two this season.  Botha’s signing was announced two months after O’Callaghan’s extension and – the timeline is notable – two days before Munster’s semi-final against Leinster, when Jack O’Donoghue was injured.

So it’s fair to infer that Botha was signed as a replacement for the Connacht-bound Robin Copeland, and that Jack O’Donoghue’s peripatetic journey across the Munster backrow [8 starts at No6, 5 starts at No7, and 5 starts at No8 in the 2017-18 season] was set to continue for another season, before injury laid waste to the non-plan for his next term. 

Because it looks like a non-plan, not a plan. I find it difficult to believe that O’Donoghue isn’t somewhat frustrated with how he has been managed since debuting in September 2014 as a 20 year old. The next season [2015-16] he made 11 starts at No7, four at No6 and three at No8. Then he made 14 starts at No8 in the 2016-17 season, three at No7 and one at No6. 

Jack O'Donoghue Munster Starts 2014-18

Jack O’Donoghue’s injury in Munster’s last game of the 2017-18 season effectively ruled him out of the first half of the 2018-19 season. But where will he fit in when he comes back into contention? Blindside, openside or No8?

So in those four seasons spanning 2014-18, he has made 14 starts at No6, 19 at No7 and 23 at No8. After his rookie year, each season has seen him selected most frequently in a different position: mostly at openside in 2015-16, mostly at No8 in 2016-17, mostly at blindside in 2017-18. Granted that period has been tumultuous in the Munster coaching class – the late Anthony Foley was head coach in the first season, Rassie Erasmus for the next season and a half, then van Graan – but the situation was no closer to being resolved at the end of last season. Under Foley, O’Donoghue was primarily seen as an openside, under Erasmus as a No8, and van Graan isn’t sure what his best position is at all. 

O’Donoghue was the most talented forward to come through the Munster academy since Peter O’Mahony, five years before him; you could make an argument for Niall Scannell, but I believe that O’Donoghue’s standout Irish U20s performances win that debate. But I don’t think that van Graan has a defined role for him in mind. If the coach saw him as primarily a No6 [the position where he picked him most often last season], why did they re-sign Dave O’Callaghan for a year? Of O’Callaghan’s 63 starts for the province, 56 of them have been at blindside … but he has only played twice this season. If O’Donoghue was seen as a No7, why didn’t van Graan pick him there more often? If it’s as a No8, why did he bring Botha in? I can’t see any logic to the thought process, nor can I see any evidence of economic thinking. 

Jack_oDonoghue_Munster

Munster have recently announced the re-signing of Arno Botha. All seven of Botha’s starts this season have come at No8, which indicates that O’Donoghue will be spending more time on the flanks again next season. Given that the Waterford man was a No8 all the way up through his age-grade career, and that the best coach he has played under [Erasmus] saw that as his best position, it’s not an ideal situation. 

Munster are still paying O’Callaghan’s wages, essentially for him just to train. The two games he has this season could easily have gone to Gavin Coombes, an academy player with prototypical size [198cm/110kg] and athleticism, who has a competitive edge and is on the up. Pushing selection for Coombes makes sense on two counts – there’s huge gains to be made in stepping up a level as a 20 year old, and as an academy player Munster are only paying him buttons. O’Callaghan is 28 years old and should be in his prime; you’d imagine that gametime is the first thing on his mind every time he gets out of bed, because to be blunt his career progress has stalled. 

 

Form An Orderly Queue On The Touchline, Tackle Bags Will Be Handed Out At 11am

There’s a similar logjam on the wing, with Ronan O’Mahony [1+0, 80 mins] , Stephen Fitzgerald [0+0, 0 mins] and Calvin Nash [0+0, 0 mins] surplus to requirements for this half of the season. Things aren’t going to plan for Nash, who set out with the determination that the 2018-19 season would be “kind of [a] breakthrough year” with a fallback of getting “a good few bench games in Europe”. Nash was playing on a weekly basis for the ‘A’ side in the Celtic Cup during September until he injured his ankle against Scarlets ‘A’ in early October. He returned to training in mid-November but is yet to feature this season in either the Pro14 or the European Cup.

Fitzgerald featured intermittently in the Celtic Cup, but picked up a foot injury sometime in October and only returned to training in mid-December. On St Stephen’s Day, Connacht announced that he had joined the province on a loan deal. It’s a fresh start for the now 23 year old Fitzgerald and hopefully provides him with a chance to show what he is capable of on the pitch. He debuted for Munster as a teenager in September 2015, but the trail went cold soon after: he didn’t feature at all in the 2016-17 season, had two starts in 2017-18 [2+3, 231 mins] and hasn’t been selected this term. 

Provincial Academy Gametime Comparisons 

From the academy, Shane Daly [3+1, 233 mins], Gavin Coombes [1+4, 151 mins] and Liam Coombes [1+0, 80 mins], Sean O’Connor [0+2, 41 mins], and Diarmuid Barron [0+1, 4 mins] have seen gametime in the Pro14. That amounts to 5 starts and 496 mins of gametime over 15 games – 5 of a possible 225 [15 starters x 15 games] starts, just 2.2%. In terms of gametime it’s 496 out of 18000 available minutes [15 games x 15 positions x 80 minutes]: 2.75%. These are very low numbers. 

We wrote about how McFarland was leading the way in providing opportunities to academy players in Ulster, with 16 starts and 1485 minutes going to youngsters before the Munster derby last weekend; that figure has since gone to 17 starts [7.5%] and 1570 minutes [8.7%]. At Leinster, Cullen and Lancaster have, over the last three seasons, shown themselves to be strong proponents of selecting from the academy and this term have given eight academy players a combined 11 starts [4.9%] and 1024 mins [5.7%] of gametime: Conor O’Brien [4+1, 321 mins]; Hugo Keenan [3+0, 199 mins]; Ciaran Frawley [1+3, 173 mins]; Scott Penny [2+0, 143 mins]; Jimmy O’Brien [1+1, 97 mins]; Hugh O’Sullivan [0+4, 67 mins]; Jack Kelly [0+1, 12 mins]; and Paddy Patterson [0+1, 12 mins].

Connacht are in a slightly different position than the other three provinces because they have used the Challenge Cup as a development tournament. Andy Friend has given 14 starts [6.2%] and 1164 minutes of gametime [6.5%] to five academy players. Three of Matt Burke’s [0+4, 44 mins] four senior appearances have come in the Challenge Cup, as have two of Colm de Buitlear’s [2+1, 190 mins]; Conor Fitzgerald [2+2, 154 mins] and  Kieran Joyce [2+0, 148 mins] have played exclusively in that tournament. However, Paul Boyle [8+3, 628 mins] has played extensively in the Pro 14, logging seven starts and a further two appearances off the bench for a total of 536 mins in the league – more than the entire Munster academy combined. And Connacht are just 3 points behind Munster in the conference table, at 32 match points to Munster’s 35. It’s not like they’re making up the numbers.

Munster are way down on the other provinces in terms of providing opportunities to their academy players. The cost of that is twofold – by not providing them with starts and minutes, you’re retarding their progress. Secondly, and following on from that, academy players earn c.€8k p.a.; that’s the cost you want to pay for players who are learning on the job. If they’re learning on the job at €24k p.a. or €40k p.a., you’re tripling or quintupling your costs for no benefit. 

It’s The Economy, Stupid

This comes against the long-term backdrop of the Munster Branch’s continuing difficulties in meeting the terms of its financial agreements with regards to repayment of the Thomond Park debt. Repayments have been restructured at least twice. Despite the sale of naming rights for the stadium being “one of the areas that we’re looking at” since 2014, the province’s financial team have either declined or been unable to complete a deal on that front for five years.

IRFU 2017-18 Report_P63

IRFU 2017-18 Report_p64

Pages 63-64 of the IRFU’s 2017-18 Annual Report give a black and white reading of Munster’s financial situation with regards to the restructuring of debt accrued from the redevelopment of Thomond Park. The union have brought down repayments to a base of €100k p.a., but in return they’re taking 50% of debenture tickets, corporate boxes and naming rights. 

With respect to their financial position, Munster should be aiming to be the leanest squad of the Irish provinces, not the heaviest.

That doesn’t have to hurt the province either. As we’ve just spent the last three thousand words pointing out, there are players on the payroll who are making zero impact on their results. How could losing guys who have no material impact on results hurt?

Secondly, getting games out of players early in their career is pretty much a necessity in Irish rugby. It’s an investment in both the future of the player and the future of the province. The interprovincial market for players isn’t particularly lively – although player movement from Leinster is an outlier in that regard – and there are significant restrictions on the personnel market imposed by the IRFU [i.e. a quota on NIQ/NIE players]. None of this is news, but it’s the status quo which provincial coaches and managers have to accommodate.

Waiting around for a golden ticket of an academy player to emerge is a flawed approach. You end up waiting and waiting with youngsters ‘not making the grade’ and when the golden ticket comes along of course he excels … but the other guys are nowhere. Observers of Ulster saw an example of that modus operandi when Iain Henderson became the yardstick by which other Ulster Academy forwards were measured: none of them were as good, none of them could meet his marker and none of them were backed to progress. Where did that end? Ulster sent out a starting pack in their match against Munster that didn’t have a single native Ulsterman in it.

Rob Kearney_Leinster 2005

There are always exceptions for the inordinately talented – Rob Kearney played in 25 games [17+8, 9 tries] in his first season for Leinster as a 19-20 year old, Garry Ringrose played in 22 games [20+2] in his first season as a 20 year old, and James Ryan played for Ireland before Leinster, going on a winning run 23 games long which took in Six Nations, Heineken Cup and Pro14 trophies. But those young players had to be selected in the first place before they could go on to achieve.

Learning Curve

 

There’s an interesting quote from current Munster forwards coach Jerry Flannery that featured in an interview with the Irish Independent back in April 2012 , shortly after his playing career ended:

“If you are going from the ’09 season to 2010 … these guys like (Peter) O’Mahony, (Simon) Zebo, (Mike) Sherry, (Ian) Nagle, (Dave) Foley, these are all good players but they weren’t so much on the radar back then and I was there training with them the whole time. I wasn’t saying to myself, ‘we have some cracking young players coming through.’ Maybe a coach can see something I can’t see, but I am training with them, I have eyes on them all the time so I don’t know how you get that cycle right in a squad.”

Some players just keep on going up and up and other players hit their ceiling earlier, but most of them start at a comparable level. Flannery bunched those five players together when speaking off the cuff [and without the benefit of hindsight] about their introduction into the Munster set-up. He wasn’t telling everyone that O’Mahony would lock down the blindside jersey for Ireland and that Zebo was the most exciting player he’d ever seen in red … because he didn’t know.

Since then, Peter O’Mahony has gone on to captain Ireland and the Lions, while Simon Zebo is Munster’s all-time top try-scorer. They’re the big success stories, even if Zebo has flown the coop. On the other hand, Mike Sherry’s career has been brutalised by a number of serious injuries; he’s still chipping away with the province, but has fallen way down the depth chart at hooker. Ian Nagle turned down an advance from Northampton Saints to try and break into a stacked Munster second row [O’Connell, O’Callaghan, O’Driscoll, Ryan all in situ], but between the form of the players in front of him and his own form and fitness, it never happened. Foley had a slow start to his career but had some impactful seasons [16+4 in 2013-14, 18+7 in 2015-16] before making the decision to leave for Pau in March 2017.

But they all started at more or less the same level. The old saying ‘ignis aurum probat’ translates as ‘fire tests gold’: you have to push players to see what they’re made of. Guys with the right stuff find a way to handle the situation with which they’re faced. It’s nice to have a perfect situation to give youngsters their debut, but if you’re waiting around for it, you’ll wait too long.

Choice Cuts

It’s actually not difficult to see how Munster can rationalise their squad: van Graan has already marked players’ cards in terms of gametime. Veering away from that for sentimental reasons when it comes to putting paper on the table would mitigate against improvement.

The biggest issue is when to say stop. Some species thrive when they’re aggressively pruned, and it’s something that Munster have never attempted. From The Mole’s point of view, the Munster squad looks inefficient and uneconomic, and has done for a number of years. It’s an expensive province to run: two stadiums to keep up, more NIQs in the squad than in any other provincial organisation and the biggest squad in the country. Munster rely too much on non-Irish qualified players and don’t offer enough opportunities to their own young players. Neither of those selection practices do enough for the Irish national side.

Hart [27] was a signing that simply never took, and Munster clearly have too many scrum-halves on the books. Ronan O’Mahony [29] had a very productive 2016-17 season, coming out of the blue with an 11-try wonder year, but has been confined to just two appearances in the last 17 months. With Conway and Earls in place on the wings, and Sweetnam [b. 1993] and Wootton [b.1994] in situ behind them, there aren’t many opportunities left over, and those that are would be at the expense of Calvin Nash [b.1997], eight years his junior. Stephen Fitzgerald’s loan move to join his younger brother in Connacht may or may not provide him with a permanent home, but at least it puts him in danger of some time on the pitch, and it also takes him off Munster’s payroll. 

Dave O’Callaghan’s situation has been discussed earlier. Just four months younger than Peter O’Mahony, he has struggled to make a contribution commensurate with the potential he showed over three tournaments on the Irish U20s in 2009-10. Even when O’Mahony missed the 2015-16 season, O’Callaghan couldn’t make the No6 jersey his own. Now both Wycherly and Coombes are champing at the bit to progress. 

Keatley [31] has been dealt a rough hand and I’ve plenty of sympathy for him, but his demotion has been a decisive move from van Graan and, for what’s it’s worth, I respect the methodology. The coach has decided to cut the cord and has been clinical about it. It’s not the easiest thing for a coach to do, but obviously it’s tougher on the player himself. With that said, Keatley still has life in him and a huge amount of high-quality experience, including Six Nations games, Heineken Cup knockout fixtures and league playoffs. There’s a third act to come in his career – the key question is whether he wants to stay in Ireland or if he would rather take his chances on a foreign field.

Jaco Taute_Munster

If Taute is retained for a third contract, Munster would have seven de facto centres  in their first team squad: Arnold, Bleyendaal, Daly, Farrell, Goggin, Scannell and Taute – too many for their needs. 

Jaco Taute re-resigned for the province in the same tranche as Keatley, and will be out of contract at the same time. While he made an enormous impact in his first term as a medical joker for Francis Saili, playing in 26 games and scoring eight tries , he has been badly hampered by injury since then and Munster have moved on, signing Chris Farrell and promoting Dan Goggin. There’s a further twist that doesn’t play in Taute’s favour: van Graan gave Tyler Bleyendaal two starts [his only two starts since returning from injury] at No12 in November. Bleyendaal is now Irish-qualified by residency, which is a tick in his favour from the IRFU’s standpoint. Munster are super-heavy at outhalf this season, and it looks like van Graan is trying to craft a new role for Bleyendaal as a like-for-like replacement for Rory Scannell, a second five-eighth type of No12. On top of all that, Munster have given academy player Shane Daly a senior contract for next season.

 

Mathewson is 33 and while a useful player, his presence in the squad would provide a barrier to the progress of former Irish U20s captain Nick McCarthy, whose signing from Leinster was announced in October.

Final Fitting

To the Mole’s eye, there are a number of factors that contribute to Munster’s bloated squad. The first is the recent history of the head coach position. There have been very frequent changes of personnel at the very top of the coaching pile over the last three years. Erasmus left Munster in mid-November 2017 after a sixteen month stint; Johann van Graan has essentially only had the top job for 13 months. To a large extent, van Graan is dealing with a squad that was left to him. He’s the key decision-maker in the organisation when it comes to squad make-up, but he hasn’t had the tenure to have much of a say when it comes to deciding contracts.

There are certain players who every coach agrees on – Connor Murray or Keith Earls or Peter O’Mahony – but it’s a matter of fact that coaches differ on the potential or abilities of players all the time. Rob Penny wasn’t a big C.J. Stander fan, for example. To a greater or lesser extent, van Graan is dealing with the remnants of previous coaches’ opinions on players in terms of the make-up of his squad. With that said, this season he’s putting his mark on it through selection.

The second factor is less tangible, and is more to do with how the organisation identifies itself: all grit and no glamour, a hard-working side which has a parochial loyalty and which represents the best of its community. There’s room for a side order of starry-eyed romance based on past accomplishments: “to the brave and faithful, nothing is impossible”. But they’ve had to balance that identity against the realisation that the old recipe wasn’t getting it done anymore, and that the big vocal fanbase was dwindling with the results. Munster’s squad has been assembled from a far wider background in recent years, and their identity has been diluted.

Munster_Injury

Nobody can tell what injury crisis is going to hit at any given time. It’s the nature of the game, at all levels. But a provincial head coach can’t be so worried about using his academy players that he goes four [or five!] deep in multiple positions in his senior squad. 

And there’s a downside to loyalty when it verges into sentimentality. That manifests itself in various ways, from Mick Galwey being given a makey-uppy job back in 2010 as a “Squad Advisor” to players – especially home-grown players – being retained beyond their useful lifespan. You can maybe keep a spot open for a talented guy who has been badly hit with injury and is taking a long time to come back to form, but you can’t do it for everybody. There’s no point in having guys just hanging around, not getting selected.

There has to be a plan for every player in the squad. Each player has his own plan for the season [as we mentioned above, Calvin Nash had lined up markers he wanted to hit over the course of the season], but the coaching set-up has to have a specific plan for each player in their squad. That’s a big part of their obligation to their players. The two plans may not coincide – they might be wildly divergent – but the coaches have to have an actual plan for the player: how they are going to improve him off the pitch, how they plan to select him over the course of the season, how they are going to get the most out of his abilities when he’s in the matchday squad.

Munster should be looking to cut their first team squad down to 40/41 players for next season, cut their NIQ quotient in half to three, and aim to give 4.5% of total starts [up 2.3%] and 5.5% of total gametime [up 3%] to academy players. Those are big changes from what they’re used to, but all are achievable.

Even excluding the long-term injury scratches of O’Donoghue, Farrell and O’Connor, there are eight players in the current squad who have started 1 game or less, eight players who have played less than 100 minutes. Munster are essentially already playing with a squad of 40 players. A couple of those underused players look like they are strategically important and worth a further contract, but outside that group of eight there are two or three first team squad players sitting deep down their positional depth charts when there is significant strength of depth in those positions in the academy.

In terms of NIQs, Marshall and Kleyn become Irish-qualified by residency at the start of next season and no longer count in that quota. Regularising outsize scrum-half and centre departments with priority given to players eligible to play for Ireland should be a matter of course.

Having a smaller first team squad should automatically lead to more exposure for academy players; even if it doesn’t, and van Graan proves himself to be a conservative selector who relies heavily on his senior contracted players, it means that more experience is concentrated in fewer players, i.e. ‘fringe’ players get more time on the pitch, get longer runs of matches in a row, become more experienced and provide better value for money. Whether he chooses to back academy or fringe players, the result is a leaner, more productive and more economic squad.

 

8 thoughts on “Maintaining a Lean Squad

  1. As always with the Mole, a hard-nosed, well researched, piece which should be essential reading for David Nucifora and IRFU Treasurer Tom Grace, as well as the entire Munster Management Committee (the Blazers plus CEO).

    Wasting money isn’t smart. Pissing off players who don’t get gametime isn’t smart. For a Club who are looking for success of any sort, playing or financial, this analysis is a damning indictment of the management of the Province.

  2. Fantastic in-depth report by Mole. Sadly, it tells us what most of us suspected anyway.
    Seems to be a short-term policy for Munster, no matter who is in charge. Steadily build up more Saffers/NZ’ers, and Leinster internationals (just Leinster internationals from now on IRFU – there will be no thanks to Leinster or SA for taking their players), and get to semi-finals of HC or the odd losing Pro league final, repay some of the annual depth. No long term plan.
    The question for young Munster academy players as I see it – Are you exceptional and ready for senior pro rugby straight away – Not yet ? – Did you learn rugby on the high veldts or in Leinster – No? Take a hike, we like to tap up young players someone else has developed.

  3. Judging by the comments it is merely catering to your audience but when did the anti-Munster tone start pervading through your writing? Your earlier articles didn’t have anything like this level of contempt. Even the one about the gap in the Munster production line a while back wasn’t riddled with constant jabs like this one. Don’t get it. Different authors on board?

  4. It looks like you were either on the money or are actually van Graan in disguise – clear out of Keatley, Taute and Hart in the media today

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