The news of Tomás O’Leary’s return to Munster has been welcomed by fans throughout the province. However, is his return indicative of just how far the Reds have fallen? Brian Barry discusses.
Munster announced this week that prodigal son Tomás O’Leary was returning to the province after two seasons with London Irish. While this may be a positive step for both parties, it is in truth another example of how Munster have fallen down the pecking order of Europe’s elite.
At 31, O’Leary may have his best years behind him, and will not be fancied to usurp Conor Murray for a starting berth.
Going into 2011, O’Leary was first-choice scrum half in Declan Kidney’s plans. Through an unreliable performance in a warm-up game against England, O’Leary’s stock crashed, and he did not even travel to the World Cup.
O’Leary became surplus to requirements with Munster, but although he fell out of favour as the premier scrum-half in Ireland, he did not see this detrimental to the future of his career, and looked overseas for a platform to return to the big-time.
In 2012, it was mooted that O’Leary would depart Munster. Having rejected signing a new deal with the southern province, a move to Perpignan fell through. However, London Irish stepped in to secure the Corkonian’s services, signing the former hurler on a two-year deal.
Despite a promising start to life at the Madejski Stadium, the 2012/2013 season was ravaged by injury, and he underwent back surgery in December 2012. He made his return at the beginning of the 2013/2014 season, but has not always been guaranteed a starting role since.
When O’Leary departed Munster, the Men in Red were eating from Europe’s top table. A semi-final berth in the RaboDirect Pro12 and a quarter-final loss to Ulster in the Heineken Cup was deemed a disappointing year, such were Munster’s high standards.
Fast-forward three years and things are not so rosy around Thomond Park. Eliminated in Europe at the group stages for just the second time since 1998, many of the stalwarts are ageing. Paul O’Connell is the sole survivor in the starting XV of the 2006 and 2008 Heineken Cup triumphs, and the flow of underage production has dried up. Of the 31 selected for the Irish u20 squad for the 6 Nations, just four are from Munster.
Munster are undoubtedly on a downward curve. While scrum-half may be the one position that Anthony Foley’s side can still genuinely boast a world class player, the return of O’Leary is a sign of the times.
So what benefit does the return of O’Leary offer to both parties? For Munster, although Murray is firmly the first choice, O’Leary offers experience from the bench. With the new-found competitive nature of the Pro 12 and the emphasis placed on European qualification, the opening of next season will be crucial as international players will be absent.
As Murray will be at the World Cup, perhaps Anthony Foley and co. recognise the need for an experienced head controlling the tempo of the backline. Also, as provincial rugby in Ireland is losing its sense of tribalism, players are leaving these shores in search of first-team rugby, while others flock in from the southern hemisphere to fill the starting places.
With a Cork native taking up a senior role in the dressing room when O’Connell and co. are on international duty, Munster’s sense of identity can thrive and help restore the magic of old.
From O’Leary’s point of view, a return home has its obvious appeals, but he will have to settle for a place on the bench for the big European games.
It is a sign of the changing times that Munster turn to a 31-year-old scrum-half in a time of need. O’Leary’s best years are behind him, and he is unlikely to ever return to an international standard.
It is a positive move for both parties in the circumstances. But when looking at the broader picture, it is a move of desperation for a team in rapid decline who can no longer produce nor attract world class talent.
For a team accustomed to dominating the Northern Hemisphere, re-signing a player ravaged by injury and unable to consistently hold down a starting spot in the Aviva Premiership speaks volumes.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena.
Read More About: Anthony Foley, irish rugby, london irish, Munster, munster rugby, tomas o'leary, Top Story