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.

Reply All

Almost everyone who works in any sort of office job, or probably lots of other environments, will have a story to tell about someone mistakenly hitting the ‘Reply All’ button, or somehow sending the wrong information to the wrong people.

It’s a source of comedy gold, as anyone who’s heard David O’Doherty’s ‘I Sent the Text Message to the Person the Text was About’, or seen the episode of The Office where Brent launches an investigation into who mocked up a compromising picture of him (‘It degrades women’), will attest.

And so it has come to pass that the latest email blunderbusses are the Munster management team, who mistakenly sent a critical evaluation of the entire squad to… the entire squad.

In all likelihood this one will blow over, and it’s important not to make too big a deal of it. But my word, it’s good a bit of an old giggle. Winning rugby matches and fostering squad harmony in a group of 30 or 40 competitive animals is a hard enough business as it is without digging absurd holes for oneself. The point many have made that the players would be used to candid criticism misses one key element: it’s one thing the coaches telling you to, say, improve your passing, but it’s entirely another having the whole squad know the coaches don’t rate your passing. It’s a case of the ‘blue eyed islanders’ problem. Everyone knows that everyone knows etc. that I can’t pass.

The biggest reveal in the whole thing was just how quaint and simple the report sounded. Colour-coding denoting the pecking order of the players! Comments such as ‘sloppy lifestyle’ and ‘on a gravy train’ [allegedly]! Do such remarks really need to be committed to a written document? It all sounds a bit Football Manager, but without the layers of complexity. Isn’t this the digital age where players are GPS-monitored for every minute they train and play?

Jirry: ‘I see that BJ Botha’s heart rate has been up in Zone 5 for the last eight minutes.  He’s cooked. Might be time to bring on Stephen Archer for the last ten.’

Axel: [consults sheet] It says here his scrummaging is average.  Let’s leave Big BJ out there for a bit.

And since when was pecking order of players set in stone by colour-coding?  Aren’t these the days of horses for courses and fostering competition for places?

Jirry: Ok, so with CJ Stander and Robin Copeland at 6 and 8 I reckon we need Sean Dougall at 7 to balance things up a bit.

Axel: [takes out copy of squad report] Yeah, I’m looking at the sheet here and it has Tommy O’Donnell shaded in lime green and Dougall is yellow, so that means O’Donnell’s our first choice. Dougall on the bench. You got the memo, right?

Jirry: I did, but I still think O’Donnell is a bit too like the other fellas. Dougall would give us a bit more in the ruck, and the other lads can do the carries.

Axel: I’m going to have to go ahead and disagree with you there. Didn’t you get a copy of the memo?

Jirry: Yes, I have the memo, I just think…

Axel: I’m going to go right ahead and send you another copy of that memo.