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Munster’s identity crisis: ‘You’d see more innovation at a civil servants' conference’

Despite losing just twice this season Munster’s coaching staff and team have had to face a barrage of criticism. Is it fair?

TWO GIANT SHADOWS lurk over Thomond Park, neither one caused by the imposing East or West Stands. No, it is other forces who leave this Munster squad in the shade; their predecessors who made this stadium rock between 1999 and 2011; the neighbour across the fence.

If it wasn’t for Leinster – winners of two Heineken Cups, a Challenge Cup and six URC titles since Munster last won a trophy – then this article would probably have a different slant. And if it wasn’t for the Munster of Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara and Anthony Foley, then we wouldn’t be writing one at all.

But this is Munster Rugby, a name that carries a great legacy as well as a heavy burden. Inside the ground a museum glorifies the past, allowing visitors view replica Heineken Cups in a giant glass frame. On the walls, history: pictures of an All Black conquest, miracle matches and home grown heroes.

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Keith Wood’s face decorates one of those portraits but it was his voice that echoed around the place earlier this week when he told Off The Ball his preference was for the Munster coaches to leave rather than ‘stay and play that level of turgid nonsense’.

He isn’t alone with his thoughts. Last Saturday, after Munster performed dismally in Connacht, Alan Quinlan described their performance as ‘dreadful’.  Donal Lenihan, a former captain, went further in his Irish Examiner column: “If Munster continue in the vein of the last two limp attacking efforts against Castres and Connacht, then you can forget about any prospect of breaking the trophy drought for another season.”

Earlier this year, also in the Examiner, O’Gara asked a pertinent question. “What do Munster stand for now?” Replying on Twitter, a Leinster fan said ‘the national anthem and not much else’.

ronan-ogara Thumbs up or thumbs down? Source: Dave Winter/INPHO

To the outsider, it seems overly harsh. Under Johann van Graan, Munster have reached Pro14 finals and Champions Cup semi-finals. The sides who knocked them out of Europe – Toulouse, Racing and Saracens – either won the Cup that year or reached the final. You could say these were the type of teams Munster used to beat and you’d be right, so long as you solely referred to that 1999 to 2011 era.

Otherwise, their great days were sporadic. New Zealand were beaten in 1978, Australia three times in separate decades. Yet there was also a 14-year stretch without a win over Ulster while the mid-’90s European campaigns were mediocre. Remember too that O’Gara and O’Connell’s final years in the jersey were similar, if not worse, than what we see now.

Right?

Not quite, says Quinlan, a veteran of their Heineken Cup wins in 2006 and ’08. “Look, you have to acknowledge there has been a lot of good in the last few years, I do want to say that. But I also want to point out that when teams played against Munster (in my era) we always let them know they were in a fight.

“And I think we’ve lost that a little bit. None of us want us to see Munster stick the ball up the jumper and play that type of rugby. What we do want to see is a little more tempo, the team to be a bit more expansive.

“We conceded a maul try against Connacht last Saturday and that moment summed up the attitude; the energy; the aggression on the day.

bundee-aki-celebrates-scoring-their-first-try Quinlan thinks Aki's try summed up the game. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Connacht had all that and Munster didn’t. So they need to find a spark from somewhere. The attack shape needs to be so much better. Like when was the last time Munster went 20-plus phases in a game? There is not much defence for what we saw in Galway.”

What we did see last weekend reminded you of that old joke about two eejits watching a video of the 1990 World Cup penalty shoot-out between England and Germany. After three penalties each, Stuart Pearce had his kick saved. “Let’s rewind and watch it again,” says one of the eejits. “I bet you a fiver England win this time.” As the rerun played out, the eejits saw Pearce again opt for power and again miss. “Can’t believe he didn’t pick a different corner after what happened the first time,” said the loser of the bet.

That was Munster in Galway. When Plan A failed, they scratched their heads. ‘Let’s give Plan A a go this time’.

“If you want a cameo to show people how Munster have not developed in attack, show them the last five minutes of that first half against Connacht,” says Eddie O’Sullivan, the former Ireland coach and Munster winger.

“Now, to be fair to Munster, Connacht had one yellow card in that period and could have had three. But Munster just stuck with a full frontal assault, regardless of casualties. You’d see more innovation at a civil servants’ conference. It was horrible to watch. The irony is they have decent backs now. But with that gameplan, they might as well have had another seven forwards on the pitch.”

Viewed from the other side of the world, rugby people would be perplexed by this discussion. Munster lost to Connacht by just a couple of points. It was just their second defeat of the season coming on the back of last year’s campaign where they recorded an 80 per cent win ratio.

Viewed closer to home, there’s also confusion. Jim Demps is a Cork man, a season ticket holder. ‘Home’ games for him involves a six-hour round-trip.

“It is probably a bad way to put it but supporting Munster is very much a family thing,” Demps says. “Like, it’s a trek to get from home (in west Cork) to Thomond Park. You don’t always want to sit in a car for six hours. You don’t always want to go to every family wedding, either. But you still go. That’s what being a supporter entails. You take the nice days, winning the finals in 2006 and 2008, with the downs.

“If you support Munster Rugby, it is more like supporting Bandon Rugby Club than say Manchester United in the sense there’s a family aspect to it. It is your local club. You stick by them through good and bad.”

Yet no one disagrees that last Saturday’s display belongs in the latter category. Aside from the scoreline, another stat stood out. Munster passed the ball just 65 times. Connacht, under the same sky, completed three times as many passes.

dave-kilcoyne Munster opted for one-off runners last week. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

And it brings us back to the question O’Gara asked after that Pro14 final defeat to Leinster. What does this Munster team stand for? What is their identity?

Most observers say the same thing; Demps the supporter, O’Sullivan the former coach, Quinlan, their man of the match from the 2008 final. “The DNA of Munster Rugby is about the forwards, the pack being abrasive, match fit, intense,” says Quinlan. “Yes,” agrees O’Sullivan. “When I played for Munster in the ’80s, it was a forward-orientated game and that hadn’t changed by the Noughties.” This is Demps’ take. “For me, CJ Stander’s never-give-up attitude represented everything Munster is about.

“And when I sit in the stands, I don’t see one single player who doesn’t care or who doesn’t get the identity part. They can’t be criticised for their effort. But I accept they haven’t been playing well in the last couple of weeks. That cannot be hidden.”

Still, there’s a paradox. If it is widely accepted that a strong pack is part of Munster’s culture then you wonder why their current brand of rugby – an attempt to play a South African style power game – is going down so badly.

For Niamh Briggs there’s an obvious answer. A former Irish international, Briggs is now coach at UL Bohemians and fronts The Red 78 podcast alongside Quinlan. “The game has evolved,” Briggs says. “It can’t be pin-a-team-back-into-the-corner-and-live-off-their-mistakes strategy anymore. Defences are so good now that you have to have players, not just those in the backline but also in the pack, who can get the ball into space. Right now, Munster are struggling with their structure.”

O’Sullivan agrees. “They are not the powerhouse everyone regarded them as 15 years ago,” he says. “While the game has changed, Munster haven’t changed enough. They are at a huge crossroads. If they rock up with another forward orientated head coach (to replace the departing van Graan), they are going to be in a similar position again in a couple of years. They need something new.”

Quinlan feels they also need something old. “When I was a player, prior to kick off, I always took a moment to myself to look around the dressing room. I’d see hard bastards on our team, men who’d die with their boots on. And it always made me think, ‘we might not have as much talent as that lot but we’ll feckin’ well give them a hard time’.

“Attitude won us matches, being relentless. That team was unbelievably intense and that’s a minimum requirement if you want to be a Munster player.

“I know it’s not easy and know you can’t just invent a John Hayes; a Marcus Horan; a Jerry Flannery. The (current) players have to find their own identity. Today’s (Munster) players are just as dynamic. But they also have to have that old-school edge.”

john-hayes-jerry-flannery-and-marcus-horan-in-the-changing-room-with-the-heineken-cup-trophy Hayes, Flannery and Horan - a team of enforcers. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Pointing to the past is a common theme in sport. Boston Red Sox fans did it for nearly a century; Liverpool fans had 1990 ingrained on their conscience; mention Mayo’s Gaelic footballers and you might as well throw 1951 and ‘the curse of Foxford’ into the sentence.

Thomond Park doesn’t have ghosts but something worse than that: legends. They are the people you read in your morning newspaper, who you hear on your radio and who you see on your TV screens, the Munster heroes from not so long ago whose constant media presence provide reminders of what went before, Toulouse, Gloucester, Sale, Biarritz, Leinster, one day as great as the next.

There is an expectation that when you play for Munster, you are going to win,” says Briggs. “And that’s such a difficult thing for this generation of players; they have no choice but to close out that outside noise.

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“You have to be fair to them, too. The Connacht game, it was just their eighth match of the season, just their third in three months. It’s so hard to build continuity when you keep getting games postponed on you. Those issues have to be built into the conversation as well.”

So does this one. The Munster of Wood, Quinlan, O’Gara and later O’Connell and Flannery also had their off days. Everyone can tell you about Toulouse in 2000. Not as many remember the defeat in Bath that October. There were bad displays in Sale, in Llanelli, San Sebastian, too. Plus there was a lot of forgiveness.

Expectations were lower then. That team had no past to live up to. “For sure, we were cut a lot of slack,” admits Quinlan. “We lost matches, semi-finals and finals and got pats on the back.”

Whereas when this team loses semi-finals, people give them stick. Are we guilty of looking at the past through rose tinted glasses? “100 per cent we are,” says Demps, the season-ticket holder. “We had a very successful backline in the Noughties – Stringer, Rog, John Kelly at 13, (Trevor) Halstead, Ian Dowling and Anthony Horgan on the wings – Shaun Payne at full back. They were all great players for us but those players weren’t flash merchants by any means.”

trevor-halstead-with-nick-macleod-and-jamie-robinson Trevor Halstead in action in 2006. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The irony is Munster have better backs now. “And that’s the frustration,” says O’Sullivan.  “Aside from the (Rob) Penney years, Munster have never tried a style of rugby based on the modern game. It’s still down to boot, bollock and bite up front. Everyone said when Stephen Larkham came in that there would be bells and whistles but Larkham has not produced.”

Quinlan broadly agrees, saying: “It is the manner of the semi-final and final losses that creates the storyline. Munster have no divine right to win anything. But Munster Rugby people are so passionate. They want to see that in their team. If they are going to lose, go down with a fight. We lost semi-finals in 2001, 2003, 2004. We didn’t want a sob story. We just wanted to bloody well win.”

Eventually they did and every Munster team since have had to measure up to those standards. It’s more a curse than a cause.

“No one is saying this team should be winning Heineken Cups but when you talk about traditions and standards, you have to see more than we saw in the RDS in last year’s Pro14 final,” says Quinlan. “That was a really lame, poor performance. Then you had Connacht last weekend, a dreadful display.

“So yes, a lot of good has happened in the last 10 years with this team but are we getting the best out of (our squad) over the last few weeks? I don’t think so.

“What we are seeing are worrying signs. Are we a brilliant kicking team? Are we a brilliant turnover team? Are we brilliant at one-out runners? No, no and no.”

It has led to a certain level of discontent among fans but Demps remains supportive of van Graan. “You have to think back to 2017 when (Rassie) Erasmus left. Things could have went very badly after that. Van Graan had to steady the ship and he has. Look at the squad he was handed and the one he will hand over to his successor. Our academy is producing players again. That doesn’t happen by accident. I do feel Munster fans need to manage expectations a little bit. We’ve lost two games this season. Two! The win in Wasps was one of the best games I was at in years.”

This is Briggs’ view: “Sport is so fickle. The players and coaches are getting stick now but if Munster go and win a big game by playing a forward-orientated pressure game, everything will be fine again. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if there was a big reaction against Ulster.”

O’Sullivan isn’t so sure. He sees the Connacht defeat as part of a long-term trend. “Keep Munster out of your 22, don’t give away penalties; do that and a very good team will beat Munster. They have not changed their identity since back in the day.”

Somehow Quinlan manages to make hope and fear rhyme.

“I just think there is more in this group. I’m not saying they should be winning European Cups or Pro14s but when you are chasing a game, you don’t want to see your big players kicking the ball away. That happened last weekend and that is a concern.

“You should be striving to close the gap to Leinster but that won’t happen if we continue to play the way we are. We are trying to contain teams but those players are better footballers than that. Have a go. Be ambitious. That’s all we want.”

It’s not too much to ask.

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Garry Doyle

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