And with the force of one formidable French foot, Munster’s last dying embers of hopes for progression to the knock out stages of the European Champions Cup were extinguished emphatically in Paris on Saturday evening.
Munster have lost many games in France over the years, but they have never succumbed in the manner they did this time around, falling off tackles and failing to match their opponents’ intensity levels. The most galling aspect was the manner in which some players were strolling around the field towards the end of the game, as if they were walking the dog on a Sunday morning in the park.
After a recent slump which saw Munster lose five straight games, questions were being asked about the side and the coaching team. Despite shortcomings they still seemed committed to the cause. However Saturday suggested, as they would say in footballing parlance, the players were no longer playing for the manager.
The 29-7 humbling, against a Stade Francais side who played the entirety of the second half with 14 players, is now Munster’s nadir in European competition. Ireland’s southern province haven’t been dining at the same table as Europe’s elite for some time now, but at present they don’t even eat in the same restaurant.
Here are three areas of change Munster need to address before they can even dream of returning to the upper echelons of the European game.
Re-engaging the Fans:
There are few more dispiriting sights than to see vast swathes of empty space in what was once a point of pilgrimage for Munster supporters. Thomond Park has become a soul sapping cavern, where the majority of the clapping sounds are produced by the slap of plastic on plastic as the wind swirls through rows upon rows of unmanned seats. Seeing the Munster branch so desperately trying –and failing – to shift tickets for home European Cup games this season is surreal. Not a long time has passed since such a ticket was the hottest commodity in town, and the only question that needed answering was how high can the price go?
As with any sporting organisation, success attracts glory supports, those happy to row along with the good days. Yet with the grim realisation the return of those days are nowhere in sight, the drop of in support has been radical.
Of more concern however is the alarming frustration growing amongst the core of dyed in the wool, weather beaten supporters who brave the elements and paucity of play to continue to support their team on a week to week basis. When these supporters start to voice discontent, you are losing the life blood of your organisation. However, who can blame them for becoming disillusioned? The on-field product, and lack of big name stars, is failing to put bums on seats and without the turnstiles clicking the province won’t be able to compete with the middle tier of European clubs, let alone those atop the pile.
The Munster hierarchy has to work out a way to make the province a workable commodity again, and only then will they be able to reassert themselves on the field.
Re-structuring the coaching ticket:
It may just be time to file the Anthony Foley experiment away as a failed exercise and move on.
There weren’t too many who shed a tear when Rob Penney left his role as Munster head coach nearly two years ago. Upon reflection the Kiwi’s achievements in reaching successive European Cup semi-finals was remarkable, given the current circumstances.
The decision to appoint Foley, a man steeped in Munster tradition, having captained the province for years, a man whose father also donned the red jersey with distinction, was hailed as an excellent choice. Whether Foley landed this role too soon, or he’s suffering by virtue of surrounding himself with an array of former playing colleagues with no coaching experience at the highest level, is open for debate. Munster’s on-field record this season however is not.
It’s the first time in the provinces’ European history they have lost three games on the bounce, the run of five consecutive defeats prior to the Ulster game tied the record for the longest losing streak in the professional era and they have failed to emerge for their European pool twice in a row for the first time this century. While coaches are ultimately judged by results, the insipid and uninspiring style of play Munster have produced under Foley is perhaps the biggest stick with which to beat the coach.
Particularly when watching the backline play, there never seems to be a coherent plan or structure in place. The absence of this is a direct fault of the coaching team and one Foley must shoulder responsibility for. The province can either dispense with Foley’s services altogether or insist he brings in assistant coaches with more experience to help him. Either way change is required.
Re-building the playing squad:
While there is no doubting the Munster squad is shorn of the global superstars that is now de rigueur within the European club game, and the array of top level Irish internationals of yesteryear, this side is certainly still underachieving.
Should Munster address a couple of key position deficiencies there is no reason to suggest they couldn’t be on a par with the likes of Leicester and Stade Francais. The demolition in Paris proved that without a steadying presence in the tight head jersey, a scrum is always likely to be demolished. BJ Botha, John Ryan and Mario Sagario all saw action at the weekend, and all three were shunted backwards at an alarming rate. Without a solid platform up front, no side can hope to compete with the best in Europe and Munster’s resources in this key position are wafer thin.
If the pack are taking some flack after their horror showing Saturday, one player has copped more over the last month than any other, and that is the hapless Ian Keatley. The Dubliner’s confidence is at an all-time low and everything he touches seems to turn to dust. He pulled a couple of clutch kicks out of the bag against Ulster to stop a run of four calamitous appearances, but he returned to form, or lack thereof, against the Parisians.
His goal kicking is consistently poor, and unfortunately for the out half he can’t seem to separate his inadequacies from the tee, from his general game. Once a place kick goes astray, his whole games crumbles.
JJ Hanrahan’s departure in the off season was a blow to Munster at the time, but that loss has become all the more apparent thanks to Keatley’s continued struggles. Munster need to recruit three of four players that can go straight into the team and improve it (second row and inside centre being the other areas of concern), but top of the priority list has to be a tight head and out half that can bring stability and direction.
The hike back to relevance will be a long and arduous one, but the journey must begin immediately.
Read More About: Anthony Foley, coach, european champions cup, fans, fly-half, ian keatley, Ireland, JJ Hanrahan, Limerick, Munster, out-half, prop, Rugby, Sack, stade francais, Thomond Park, tight head, Top Story