There’s a lot of expectation that comes with being a million euro man in rugby. When Munster signed All Black centre Francis Saili to a two-year, €1,000,000 contract in April 2015, there was a general expectation, not just a hope, that Saili would be Munster’s midfield rock for the future.
At 24, Saili had decided to pack his bags and head for the great unknown of Limerick to join then Munster Head Coach Anthony Foley at Thomond Park, and it must be stated, Munster really were the great unknown at the start of the 2015/16 season.
The club were facing growing financial concerns, they had lost a host of senior players for the season including Paul O’Connell to retirement, and Peter O’Mahony to injury, and they were taking a gamble on an unproven head coach in Anthony Foley.
Saili was expected to be their foundation in the midfield, the player that Munster could build their backline around an international that they had signed with his best rugby still ahead of him.
Munster fans waited all of last season for Saili’s best rugby but they never really saw it, as Munster’s floundering backline struggled to create any sort of consistent penetration or end product.
Saili scored four tries in 16 starts during last year’s Pro 12 and played the most minutes of any Munster player last season accumulating 1,750 minutes of rugby in 22 total appearances, where he played the full 80 minutes in all but one game.
If anyone understood Munster’s struggle last season it was Saili, after all, no other player experienced it more than he did.
However, this season it has been different for both Munster, their supporters and Saili.
The Aucklander has yet to play a game for the Reds this season after undergoing off-season shoulder surgery in August, but Saili is set to make his season debut on Monday after being named on the bench for Munster’s St. Stephen’s Day matchup with Leinster at Thomond Park.
A guaranteed starter last season, Saili’s place in the Munster midfield is no longer guaranteed with Rory Scannell continuing to impress at inside centre, while South African loanee Jaco Taute has been a revelation at outside centre.
But the changes in Munster’s midfield are microscopic compared to what has transpired elsewhere in the province.
Firstly, the coach who brought Saili to Thomond Park is no longer a presence at the club, at least physically, his spirit has left a much more meaningful and deeper legacy within the province.
Anthony Foley’s passing in October rocked Irish Rugby to it’s very foundations but ultimately awoke Munster from an extended period in the doldrums.
Rassie Erasmus had already started to steady the ship when he took over as the club’s Director of Rugby in July, but Foley’s unfortunate passing in October galvanised Munster in a fashion that is unalike any other in predicament in modern sport.
In the aftermath of Foley’s death, Munster went on a six game win streak outscoring their opponents 213-63 over the six game period, posting notable wins over Glasgow, Leicester and the Maori All Blacks.
Munster’s win streak was finally put to an end last weekend by Leicester when the Tigers edged Erasmus’ side 18-16 at Welford Road, but the Reds now return to Thomond Park on Monday when they take on Leinster in their first interprovincial derby of the festive period.
The mood and tone around Munster may be different since Foley’s passing, but ultimately, the expectations are still the same for the team and for Saili, and that is to perform.
With Erasmus trying desperately hard to secure Taute on a permanent deal for next season, and with Scannell an Irish eligible player who is improving with every game, Saili’s projected place in Munster’s future plans may not be as solid as what they once were, but for the moment, the All Black needs to perform, and he couldn’t have picked a better time to make his return.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena