The Passionate Mysteries

This season is but a new dawn for European rugby – the arrogant English (© G. Thornley) and arrogant but stylish Francais (© G. Thornley) have conspired to make the ERCC full of exciting-looking pool games but, without a unified TV deal, no hard fixture list past October or any semblence of organisation. It will assuredly be more difficult for the provinces to maintain the success of the last guts of a decade in Europe, and some of them will no longer be able to do the usual lip-service to the domestic tournament, sponsored by a brand which gets too much free exposure anyway so will get no more from us.

That’s the external environment. In-house, two of the provinces have shaken up their coaching tickets – one with the long-time heir apparent replacing a successful and unfortunate Kiwi, and another where the Cutters-frequenting Kiwi consiglieri Cowboy was summarily shafted after his capo departed for Glaws. The Ulster players didn’t even feign disappointment and the air up in Ravers is pretty chipper, more of which anon.

Normally around this time of year, we run the rule over how we reckon each of the provinces will get on, but this year, it seems we’re asking more questions than offering any answers – we just can’t make our minds up about a whole bunch of stuff. This applies to Munster as much as the rest, and they’re the ones we’re going to start with.  We’ll look at the rest over the next week.  One thing that is certain is that the Chernobyl fallout-coloured change strip is horrendous, and deserves to be Anscombe-d in double quick time. But, we digress.

First of all, this was a bad week for Munster rugby.  It started badly and got worse.  If the screen shots of the leaked email are to be believed, the problem may well be bigger than it first appeared.  Those who argue that ‘they’re big boys, they can either use it as a means of improving themselves, or ship out’ would do well to remind themselves that even at the top of elite sport, individuals react differently to things, and coaches rarely apply a ‘blanket’ philosophy to a whole squad.  One former Manchester United player once said that if Sir Alex was mad, no matter who was to blame it was Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville who always got the worst of his umbrage, because they were the ones best able to take it.

The best – only? – way to try and get these things behind you is to win rugby matches, and so losing to Edinburgh – Edinburgh! – at home – at home! –  is about as unhelpful as things could get.  A bad start for the new regime.  They played really poorly.  It’s early days, it’s only one game, but Munster should be beating Embra at home.

Now, our list of questions and things to ponder:

What will the first-choice backrow look like? One thing we do know is that Peter O’Mahony will be in there, and probably at 6, though he’s injured until mid-October. Who will be there with him? Meet the contenders:

  • CJ Stander Is he a strong and athletic carrier who provides a lineout option or a workshy show pony? In other words, is he Munster’s Tom Croft, or is he Munster’s Tom Croft?  He looked their best player on Friday night but when O’Mahony returns, will they be able to find room for him?
  • Robin Copeland As close to a like-for-like replacement for the admirable James Coughlan as they were likely to get.  Copeland sure liked to carry the ball last year, albeit for a mediocre Cardiff side. Axel, despite the much-vaunted (cover your eyes) “return to traditional Munster values” is likely to look for a bit more continuity from his number 8, particalarly with his electric backline. Copeland will need to be better than last year to slot into the starting XV
  • Tommy O’Donnell One season wonder, or unlucky with injuries? We’ll soon see. Incredibly, when SOB got injured last year, there was but the breath of a competition for the Ireland 7 shirt, one that involved O’Donnell. But by the end of the season, he was nowhere near the Munster team
  • Sean Dougall Fetcher extraordinaire. But then, as Heineke Meyer said, the only fetcher I need is my son to get me a beer. Not many teams play a dedicated groundhog these days, and Dougall has work to do, though he finished the season strongly last season.
  • Shane Buckley young gun attracting a lot of attention, but we don’t know much about him. Can you help?

We suspect TOD/Dougall will be at 7, but we’ve no idea which one, and Stander/Copeland to play with POM, with potential fluidity in positions. Stander certainly looks the more capable player, but Copeland might balance the backrow better, presuming he adds some subtlety to his game. All-in-all, a bunch of good-to-quite-good pros – none of them would likely get in the Leinster team, and this Ulster fan would like to have Stander around but would probably prefer Diack-Henry-Wilson (note: comparison does not include POM). One of the tricks Penney proved decent at was putting out balanced and effective units that were more than the sum of their parts – hopefully Axel does that without the muddle that it seems on paper.

Will we see Donnacha Ryan come back to his best? Ryan has had a pretty miserable 12 months – he hasn’t had much opportunity to shine for Munster and Devin Toner and NWJMB have moved ahead of him in the Irish pecking order. Seeing the Tipp man back and in his 2012 form would be great news, but it’s not guaranteed – niggling injuries can easily and often lead to a depressing perma-injured Jirry-type scenario.  He had a long, steady rise to the top, let’s hope it’s not a long, steady decline.

Is there a standoff for standoff? This time last year, some of the more excitable comments below the line had JJ Hanrahan taking over Keatley’s reins for round 3 of the HEC (actually, go and look if you like). Ask the same question now, and we think we’d get a mote realistic answer – the local hero is still raw, and an exciting young Kiwi, Tyler Bleyendaal is on his way over. Axel seems to view Bleyendaal as his first choice second-five, and he’d be a good one, but he’s (at least) the second best outhalf in the squad. If Keats maintains his form of the end of last season (which, to be fair, few saw as capable of), that’s this debate over, but Bleyendaal is a classy player, and any step-off in form could see him step inside one. JJ remains in third place, and possibly less opportunities than last year beckons the wunderkind.

And centre? Option A: Pub quiz, 2018: “What was the name of the Australian centre who made two Heineken Cup starts for Munster, before joining Treviso and then disappearing?” Option B: Pub quiz, 2018 “What was the name of the new Rua Tipoki, who rocked up unknown at Munster but backboned their best centre partnership in yonks?”. Which is the future for Andrew Smith? And, should he play (not a given), will he be outside a playmaker in Bleyendallor JJ or a Denis Hurley, perhaps, who according to a certain screenshot is ‘the best option at 12’.  Or will Smith play inside centre and someone else altogether at 13? Say, Keith Earls, who might need to get some practise in the 13 shirt for the Milky Bar Kid. Or Johne Murphy – who sometimes gets played there. On purpose!

Speaking of Keet, what is the back three going to look like? The three best outside backs are Earls, Simon Zebo and Gerhard van der Heever, but playing them means shoe-horning Zebo into the full-back shirt. He would do fine there, but is that really the best use of resources? Assuming Earls is playing on the wing, Felix Jones at full-back is a more natural fit, leaving one of the afore-mentioned trio on the bench. Which one? But what if Earls plays centre? We’re still not writing him off as a 13, even though others have long since done so, and he’s probably the best qualified Irishman to play in #thirteen right now – but for (many) others, its a nightmare of slipped tackles, lapsed concentration and passes not made. We still can’t help being aroused by a backline of Murray, Keatley, Bleyendaal, Earls, Zebo, van der Heever, Jones – would this be the most exciting backline ever produced in Thomond?  Mind, the pack would need to ensure possession of 90% or over, because it wouldn’t be too clever on D.

Hold on, expansive back play? The In*o and Thornley keep talking about a return to traditi …. Sorry, we can’t take any more.

There’s plenty o goodwill out there for Axel, and he takes over from a man who did a pretty decent, if ultimately unfulfilled, job, and who has passed through the province relatively unloved.  But it’s a bad old start – about as bad as you’d have thought possible – and it’s hard to predict just what the team will look like, how they’ll play and how they’ll respond as a collective to certain email fiascos.  Answers on a postcard.

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  1. Could someone please provide a link for the leak screenshots? Paul Wallace on The Last Word last Friday was the first I’d heard of them being in circulation

  2. The “traditional values” thing is just rhetoric (read: bullshit). Foley has very little by way of proven coaching credentials, but he was a very clever player – precisely the type you’d have earmarked as a future coach – and I’d hope quotes like that are just saying something you feel needs to be said, and that people want to hear, rather than something to which he passionately subscribes.

    They don’t have a pack that even approaches the quality of the mid-noughties meat-grinding unit. Trying to play that way is wrong for that reason, and also because rugby has moved on. Even the Boks are trying to diversify.

    That backline which is turning may have something – but I wouldn’t call it stellar. I’m an Ulster fan and I’d only take one of them when compared with our first-choice 9-15. And, given how popular Pienaar is up here, I suspect your average red hand fan (who aren’t always head-over-heart people when it comes to rugby, granted) wouldn’t have a single one.

    So, perhaps Foley has more problems than appearances would indicate. And, despite all the criticism aimed at Rob Penney (much of which I disagreed with, but either way), they won a hell of a lot of games over the past two season. For all the pashun piss-taking (rightly) aimed at the media’s coverage of Munster, their ability to get the win, one way or another, has continued to amaze me over that period. The players have to take credit, as well as the coaches, so I would not write them off, but I don’t know if they have the quality to win trophies this year (words that may need eaten come next May, I realise).

    Other points: has Hanrahan’s star really fallen from last year? Also, and curse me for chasing gossip, but where are these email screenshots, and has there been any further developments or identifications from the document? The only thing I’ve heard is that BJ Botha is Mr Gravy Train, which isn’t exactly a shock.

    • I don’t know if Axel actually said RTTMV, but it was certainly reported that way. Lazy really.

      In terms of games won, you have it bang on. The squad that made the last 2 HEC semis was man-for-man no contest for the other 3 teams, and was probably inferior to Leinster and Ulster, but they still won the games that mattered – hugely impressive stuff.

    • Saying that Foley has very little by way of proven coaching credentials is very harsh. He coached a lot of the Munster players who have emerged over the last few years to a British and Irish Cup with Munster A, he’s managed the defence and forwards briefs for Munster, coached the Wolfhound with Elwood, and also took on the forwards brief for Ireland during Gert Smal’s illness in 2012. And that’s before we even consider his playing career. To be honest I don’t think there are many head coaches who have served a more thorough apprenticeship before getting their first senior professional coaching position.

      • You’re not worried that’s a bit of a dilettante CV? The B&I Cup is not big boys rugby, the Wolfhounds only play a couple of games a year and, while it will have been great for him, the stint with Ireland was still brief. To clarify, I was certainly not saying he’s a bad coach, just that he is unproven, that Penney (in my view) had done rather better than he got credit for, and that AF doesn’t have a top-rank squad but will be expected to compete for trophies. It’s not quite Martin Johnson for England, but Munster is a pretty meaty position to be anyone’s first head coach job. I guess Leinster was Schmidt’s first leading role (unless he was top man at BoP?), but would suggest his CV at that stage had much more substance than Foley’s does now.

        But, yeah, everyone has to start somewhere.

        • “Dilettante” is not a word I think I’ve ever seen applied to Foley before! I think it’s a CV, particularly the stints with the Wolfhounds and as Ireland forwards coach, which reflects someone who was marked out from above for big things. That fast-tracking was the product of an opinion among various coaches and administrators that Foley was the most talented young Irish coach doing the rounds, a conspicuous position to be in given the dearth of top-level Irish coaches.

          It’s easy to write off the the B&I Cup, but it’s a reasonably high standard competition comprised of professionals and very good semi-pros. I certainly wouldn’t dismiss the quality of Munster and Leinster’s A sides relative to, say, ITM sides. The real meat, though, is defence and forwards coaching at a top European side from 2008 – 2014, with three HEC semi-finals and a league title in that space of time, often built on excellence in areas within his brief.

          That’s half a decade of professional coaching at the top club level, which is quite the apprenticeship. Joe Schmidt, for purposes of comparison, had two more when he took over Leinster (without ever having experience of the professional game as a player). Conor O’Shea was director of rugby at London Irish within two years of his retirement. Bernard Jackman toiled away at AIL level for a couple of years before getting his first pro gig with Grenoble in 2011 and being made head coach within three years. Simon Easterby retired in 2010, immediately becoming Scarlets defence coach, and was head coach within two years. By the standards of his peers, Foley has more than served his time, and in a better set-up.

          If Penney had signed on the dotted line, I’m fairly sure Foley would be head coach somewhere else right now. There have been suggestions that London Irish were interested, and I could certainly have seen David Humphreys’ Gloucester being interested too. There are no guarantees and he’s not a proven head coach, because everyone does indeed have to start somewhere, but his credentials are rock solid for a young coach.

    • Regarding Hanrahan, I think it’s more that Keatley cemented his ownership of the shirt in the back half of last year. He played much better than a lot of people (ourselves included) thought him capable of. The revolution is on hold for now, but presumably he’ll have his chances to impress again.

  3. Munstermicko

     /  September 8, 2014

    I’ve only seen 2 screenshots, a depth chart and a spreadsheet with Keatley, hurley and couple of others on it.

  4. This blog is a bit over-excited about the prospect of Hanrahan as third choice outhalf given that Bleyendaal’s performances in Super Rugby have been uniformly poor, he won’t arrive until November and Keatley has made an early bid for the bench. Hanrahan is easily the most suited of the three to a territorial game and his elevation will happen this season, barring injury.

    Dougall is as much of a fetcher as Heinrich Brussow’s granny. Yet another supposed out-and-out 7 who doesn’t actually win turnovers. Once POM comes back into the team, Munster will revert to TOD and Copeland/Stander (more likely to be Copeland in a World Cup year).

    • With Bleyendaal not arriving until November Hanrahan certainly has a chance to press his claims. Keatley had an awful game on friday, but I think he’s still the first choice. He did the business in the big games last year, even if he is capable of throwing in the odd clanger of a match.

    • Won’t Stander be Irish in time for the WC, if that’s a consideration?

  5. ruckinhell

     /  September 8, 2014

    I only saw part of the game, but the performance by Duncan Williams was among the most inept I’ve ever seen by a professional rugby player and an ill informed first time viewer of Munster would be excused for thinking that he was actually the benefactor of a Make-a-Wish Foundation scheme kindly facilitated by the Munster branch. That he is actually paid to play on a contractual, non charitable basis, despite a long history of performances of similar ineptitude, is either a tribute to the amazing abilities of his agent or else the nefarious tentacles of Cork Con once again looking after their own. With two big Con men in Brian Walsh and Micky Drick on the management ticket the latter is my bigger fear.

    A terrible week from Munster, and once again they seem to look listless and wan without the driving personalities of POC and to a lesser extent POM on the pitch. Having a leader of POC’s calibre is obviously a benefit to any team but you can’t become dependant on him for an injection of all encompassing manic aggression and a higher standard of play. The players need to take real ownership of their performances and losing to Edinburgh at home is not an ideal start.

    • I didn’t see the game but I would implicitly agree with any and all criticism of Williams. He must make a great mug of tea because he’s not in the team for his scrum half skills. Actually, to be generous, he makes some half decent breaks but that can often be a negative when he gets swallowed up by rucks.

      Surely Pom/stander/copeland is the starting 6,7,8 set up when fit, with one of the donnachas on the bench and either butler, tod or dougal fighting for back up?

      Also, henshaw will start against South Africa at 13 this November.

  6. Paddy

     /  September 8, 2014

    For those of you looking for the screenshots.
    Comments part is here

    Squad depth here

    • Thanks very much Paddy. I think when you see assessments like Ivan Dineen’s (i.e no positive comments whatsoever) then the ‘it was leaked on purpose to give them a kick up the arse’ theory doesn’t hold any water

  7. Lop12

     /  September 9, 2014

    Very good piece even if painful reading for this Munster fan

    Il add two points

    1. Interested to see if Foley uses Copeland in the 2nd row at all, I would imagine he would be an extremely useful bench option in that he would cover most of 4-8 adeqautely, and might be a decent option to bring on or push up a line when legs are getting tired and his carrying might be more impactful. For met Stander and POM start in some format and the final back row place is up for grabs

    2. Zebo at FB would probably allow for best use of Munsters resources. I am not sure Jones will ever recpature the spark he had when we signed him first which is disappointing as he looked like he could be a star. So unlucky with injury. Not sure how JS would feel about Zebo at 15 though and that will likely drive the decision.

    • ORiordan

       /  September 9, 2014

      I’d say Joe would be keen to have more options at fullback because there is a lot of daylight between Rob Kearney and the next candidate. I originally thought that an IQ Jarred Payne would be a good option for FB but then the “Payne for 13” roadshow started rolling however it isn’t clear who is behind this.. the player himself, Anscombe, the IRFU…?

      • Stephen

         /  September 9, 2014

        Payne himself wants to play 13, for God knows what reason. Payne at FB would give Kearney a run for his money IMO, but Schmidt seems to view RK as one of his on-field lieutenants.

      • Lop12

         /  September 10, 2014

        Id say Payne would still be covering FB even if focused on 13. Henshaw also be cover for both if in squad. As would Earls (who has played quite well there when asked). Zebo def an option there, but id be slightly hesitant if I was him personally as he needs to play wing as much as possible if he wants to start there internationally.

        For my money, Kearney is not that far ahead of the others. Had an excellent last International season by and large but prior to that he was not shooting the lights out.

  8. Peat

     /  September 9, 2014

    Might Munster move POM to 7? He’s got the gas for it, he’s got the hands for it, he’s got the breakdown skills for it. The role he was playing for Ireland in the 6N was more like an openside that Henry’s role a lot of the time. That would allow Munster to play both Stander and Copeland. That’s one hell of a carrying back-row and I think it might be their strongest.

    Also seem to recall people saying that Conway was flying in pre-season. If he’s finally hit form/maturity, he definitely has the talent to trouble the back 3.

  9. hulkinator

     /  September 9, 2014

    Bleyendaal is signed as a 12 only.

    I expect Hanrahan to kick on. He is a great talent and IF he can become consistent over time then he could be world class. Hanrahan and Keatley were carrying injuries for most of last season. Hanrahan is a bit raw yet but he won the golden boot in the league last season getting over 87% of his kicks which is a great stat. The problem last season for Hanrahan and Keatley is playing between Duncan Williams and James Downey.

    • Lop12

       /  September 10, 2014

      Bleyendaal out for an indefinite period..likely to early next year at least. Prolapsed disk in neck needing surgery.

      Unfortunately JJ also injured at the minute, not sure how seriously.

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