These bloody foreigners, coming over here, stealing our jobs. Especially in rugger. Wasn’t so long ago Ireland had a foreigner as captain (Dion O Cuinneagain) and the NIQs were coming in to teach us how to be good rugger players and explain that recovery from injury didn’t involve going on the lash – who knew?! John Langford, Shaun Payne, Pippo Contepomi, Rocky Elsom, Johan Muller, etc have all passed through and left deep wells of knowledge.
But now we have largely succeeded in making the provincial playing pools more Irish - NIQs are now limited in scope and number, and the days of big name signings are gone (except in Connacht). Getting the balance right is never esay - the national side won a Six Nations this year, but the provinces are finding it increasingly tough against the French moneybags, possibly soon to be joined by English moneybags. It’s a constantly shifting target and not easy to hit.
And we are still a little touchy about foreign players - when Joe Schmidt announced his squad this week, he had to defend the selection of Robbie Diack, who has qualified as a project player up at Ulster – here’s what he had to say:
“That’s a question for people over and above me. Players are either available or they are not. I think if Bundee Aki plays well and qualifies in three years, time he will be available to whoever is coaching the Irish team at that time to be selected. If they change the rules he may not be. As it stands at the moment I think there are some very good indigenous players and the vast majority of the squad is made up of those players.”
Now, there is an element of self-interest in some of those questions, as it was in the context of not selecting the likes of Tommy O’Donnell, Irish-born, who had been picked during the Six Nations. When it comes to, say, Jared Payne, in November, given we don’t have a plethora of obvious 13 candidates, one doubts this barrier will be thrown up.
This is especially interesting this week – and this is the point we were trying to get to – as Munster formally anounced their coaching ticket for next season. And, intriguingly, it’s an all-Irish one. In spite of the IRFU’s desire to limit the influence of for’dners, Ireland just can’t shake its fondness for Southern hemisphere coaches. Not long ago there were four Kiwi head coaches across four provinces; the only thing that changed since then is that one went on to manage Ireland and was replaced by… an Australian. As we know, Munster have chosen not to extend Rob Penney’s contract in spite of two successive HEC semi-finals and the successful transition from the bestest tactical outhalf ivir like to .. Ian Keatley. The Belvo boy appeared to have inherited a poisoned chalice in taking the torch from RADGE, but all the time knowing that a local boy was waiting to take it off him. But he has played to levels unforeseen by many commentators (ourselves included).
What Penney has achieved is to instill an adventurous and sometimes coherent style of play from a province perceived as being more comfortable with boot-and-bullock HEAVE type stuff. The aforementioned Keatley, Peter O’Mahony’s captaincy, Conor Murray’s journey to the best scrummie in Europe, the pack’s technical excellence all happened under Penney. Divvying up the credits is never an easy business, but between the players themselves, Axel Foley and Rob Penney, it’s largely been two years of gains. Rog’s retirement was weathered surprisingly well, Paul O’Connell remains a totem and Stakhanov briefly re-invented himself as a winger. Epic-ish Heineken Cup wins against Globo Gym, Harlequins and Toulouse after four years of limping out of Europe get chalked up in the credit column and the eventual defeats were suitably close to go into the ‘heroic’ column.
And yet – he has never really fit in. Some of the team of the noughties (let’s call them Liginds) have persistently sniped at him for imposing a gameplan that the province are uncomfortable with – to be fair, for vast tracts of Penney’s reign, Munster have looked toothless and often gormless – but they have delivered when it matters, and have improved in every facet of the game since he took over. Very few rugby teams look good every week, in what is an increasingly fragmented rugby season. Joe Schmidt’s Leinster came closest to consistency in the Pro12, but they were the first team since Leicester to win back to back European Cups, a rare breed indeed. It’s hard to say that his reign has been anything but a success.
As Matt O’Connor is probably learning, it’s always easiest to blame the out-of-towner, and even Gerry Thornley’s assessment on Second Captains when asked if there was ‘any shame’ in how Munster lost the Pro12 semi-final seemed a little pointed, and alot OTT. Yes there was, he said, given the manner of how it happened because they ran out of play twice. Really? ‘Shame’ in losing by a point away to a team that has become adept at peaking at this time of the season, because they ran into touch twice in the last 10 minutes? Jamie Heaslip ran out of play twice when Wales beat Ireland in the 2011 World Cup, but you probably didn’t hear as much about it.
This is the backdrop for the appointment of the current coaching team – who have done nothing wrong here, let’s remember. From the outside, it always looked like the province wanted someone to come in, retire a few big beasts, bring through a few youngsters then hand the keys over to Axel – and that’s what has happened. They probably didn’t expect Penney to do as good a job, which will be Axels’ problem as he tries to live up to those standards. Or not, as he should get a decent honeymoon period.
So – to the Irish coaching ticket (all-Munster in fact) - it harks back to Deccie’s first stint in charge of Munster with Niall O’Donovan and co – a salt of the earth old-skool club coaching ticket. Jirry has been brought in as scrum coach, Micko as “technical advisor”, Brian Walsh as attack coach and Ian Costello as defence coach. A nice balance between Cork and Limerick, with nary an outsider in sight. Lunch is sorted, fellas, it’s hang sangwidges and tins of lilt out of the back of Axel’s car, and we can all have a chat about the rubbish road from Cork to Limerick!
Where are they coming from?
- Axel: currently Rob Penney’s number two, has spent time in the national setup under Deccie and the Milky Bar Kid. Generally gets credit for the packs technical skills, and is generally felt to have done a good job with Ireland too. Although Penney was also a forward, so the real driver will become clear next year
- Jirry: coming from
joe.ie Arsenal, where he was on the conditioning side. With due respect, Arsenal’s conditioning at key moments of this season wasn’t spectacular – but that can’t be all his fault. This feels like a key personality to get on board, even if it might take time to bed into a coaching role. He has been uncomplementary about Munster’s younger players in the past and appeared to take a dig at Mick Galwey on his way out the gate from his playing days. Jerry seems like an interesting, forthright individual, but in the same way that Foley is always heralded for his rugby brain, Fla never seemed to be a great rugby strategist; more of an instinctive wild man in fact!
- Micko: er, he’s, er, played for the Baa-Baa’s. And has apparently “shown promise” in the coaching sphere
- Brian Walsh: involved in the Academy, but most experience is with Cork Con in the AIL, where he won the league a couple of times
- Ian Costello: former A team coach and Academy man, sports science/UL background
One must say, it’s a big gamble – every member of the coaching staff will be making a step up to a position they have never been in before. Most coaching tickets you see appointed have a few grizzled veterans or older hands in there to offer continuity. The gamble Munster are taking is that Axel provides the continuity and the chaps with familiar faces and accents will takes to Munster like ducks to water, ensuring a seemless transition. We must also say, it’s great to see a progression path for younger Irish coaches. And while it’s more inward-looking than outward, it’s not that out of step with the way Leinster have gone about appointing coaches. Matt O’Connor, Joe Schmidt and Michael Cheika all arrived as young and unproven, acclaimed for their role as second-in-command but untried as head honchos (at a big team at least).
It’s going to be a pretty steep learning curve for all of the ticket. So how will it pan out? Our guess is it’s unlikely to end with Donncha O’Callaghan on the wing. And while that’s the case, it is probably wide of the mark to anticipate that the ball won’t go beyond the No.9 either. While it’s tempting to see Foley as the ultimate old-skool Munsterman, warming-up by keeping the heat on in the car and shovelling in the recovery pints after training, his being “steeped in the Munster culture” has to be weighed against his oft-cited smarts as a player, which are presumed to inform a technically astute coaching brain that will be more than capable of imposing a modern and highly effective gameplan on the province. So perhaps the ‘return to traditional Munster values’ (TM – the Cork Con meeja) won’t be on the menu just yet. This is where the real fascination lies. Everyone has had their suspicions that Foley and Penney have never been entirely ont he same page, and theirs has been an uneasy allicnce. The direction in which Foley points Munster should give us a nice retrospective angle on whether or not that was the case.
Foley inherits a squad which looks pretty good, and is on an upward curve. The emergence of Dave Foley, Sean Dougall and CJ Stander in the late season adds real depth to his pack and he will hope to have Donnacha Ryan and Mike Sherry for more of next season than he did this, and a rejuvenated Tommy O’Donnell would be a big help. Robin Copeland arrives from Cardiff and James Coughlan ain’t done yet. The likes of Kilcoyne, Cronin and Archer will be a year older and presumably better. He has no real issues at half-back or in the back three – unless the outstanding Conor Murray ever gets injured that is, but he’s not the only coach who’s goosed in that eventuality. If the two largely unknown quantities at centre turn out to be halfway decent, he will have every opportunity to keep Munster competitive.
He can expect an easier ride in the media than Penney got, because there will be huge goodwill behind him, and, how shall we put this, most of the key pundits are great pals with him! But Munster fans will be as demanding as ever, and he’ll be expected to at least hit the marks Rob Penney did over the last two years.