Stick It Up The Jumper

We may have advised Put Lum to put out the kids in Grenoble, but he inevitably didn’t, went full bore, and nearly won. The game itself was a stonker, a properly exciting show from two teams intent on scoring more points than the other. Connacht led by 16 and 10 points and were ultimately unlucky to lose a game they could easily have won.

The aftermath of the game brought forth lots of pats on the head for Connacht for “refusing to compromise” and “playing rugby their way” with the assertion that if only they had been more “pragmatic” they would have scraped through. Pragmatic of course being code for sticking it up the jumper.

It is telling that, for all Connacht’s success this season, which is based on Southern Hemisphere style multi-dimensional attack with plenty of forwards passing the ball and tons of offloads, they are being advised to tighten up in this stage of the season. Almost as if playing attacking rugby hadn’t actually won them any games. Now it’s time for the big boys Connacht, play some cup rugby.

Of course, close observers of rugby this season will be able to point to an actual cup that has already happened, some crucible where the concept of cup rugby – sticking it up the jumper, playing it narrow and “going through the phases” – could be tested .. the World Cup. And that of course was where teams that most exemplified cup rugby as described – England, Ireland and France – did so poorly. Wales won their key game only by throwing caution to the wind in the second half, and lost narrowly to Australia and South Africa (and England in the Six Nations) while playing Warren-ball.

And of course the teams with the most skill who went out to win games by scoring in multiples of 7 and not 3 were BNZ, Australia and Argentina. But .. y’know … cup rugby.

Next up for Connacht is a crucial Pro12 game, which can as good as seal playoff qualification, at home to the high priests of cup rugby – Axel Foley’s Munster. Foley was hired in a barrage of RTTMV headlines, and has delivered those values in spades, but unfortunately the game has moved on, and the dreadful spectacle of a prop with 15 international caps being unable to execute a 4-on-1 overlap was emblematic of their season.

If Connacht play close to their abilities, which involve passing and offloading and intelligence, and Munster continue to show all the skill and cohesion they’ve shown all season, Connacht will win. And despite it being late in the season, they won’t do it by taking the deadening advice of late as resorting to “cup rugby”, because that won’t work. And perhaps its a lesson Irish rugby could take to heart

A Return to Traditional Wigan Values

Munster’s European campaign hit the buffers at the weekend after a feeble defeat to Stade Francais Paris.  In spite of playing against 14 men for the entire second half, it was Stade who glossed the scoreline and ran away with the match.

There were shades of this last season when Munster’s hopes depended on them going to Saracens and winning, but the effort was similarly toothless.  It feels like something of a tipping point among their fanbase with regard to their affection for the coaching ticket headed up by Anthony Foley, with most fans angry and unsympathetic – no much surprise given how they have been blamed by Foley and his chums in the meeja for not coming in enough numbers to see the team.

So what went wrong?  Pretty much everything.  CJ Stander, who was about the only player who performed close to his level, afterwards admitted that although the team talked at half time about what they had to do – play at pace and make the extra man count – they just didn’t do it.  He described them as lacking energy, walking to lineouts.  That speaks to a lack of belief and stomach for the fight, and Alan Quinlan was unsparing in his post-match criticism.

Another who launched a scathing attack on management was none other than Johne Murphy, but for many that sounded like a hatchet job, a chance that Murphy was only dying to take to get one over on a coach who never really took to him.  But if indeed that is indeed the case, it raises a point worth thinking about.  Murphy, as we all know, came in for personal criticism in the infamous player-assessment email that was accidentaly distributed just a few weeks into Foley’s tenure, which is presumably a factor in his bitterness towards Foley.  But he wasn’t the only one, so are there other players around the squad who still harbour resentment towards the coach?  It certainly doesn’t appear as if the team are playing for their lives, or for the coach’s future – Simon Zebo’s performance in Paris smacked of a man with the south of France on his mind, and both Earls and Donnacha Ryan are not fulfilling expectations as two of the go-to veterans of the team.

Quinlan, in his article for the Indo yesterday, came up with the left-field suggestion that the province should dial 021-DECCIE and bring back the auld cute hoor for a renaissance.  After all, Deccie won two Heineken Cups and knows the province inside out.  It seems a bizarre idea, though.  They already have a coach – a whole team of them in fact! – who are hugely passionate about the province, and who know everything there is to know about Munster rugby. But it’s not really what they need – that being an experienced hand with a good technical skillset.

And seemingly the IRFU are ain agreement – the lads need a bit of help, and so they’re sending their latest hire, Andy Farrell, down south to work as a ‘consultant’ for the rest of the season.  It’s a major decision, not least because it’s obviously been foisted upon Foley and his backroom chums and doesn’t reflect all too well on them.  It’s a decent idea in theory – a voice from outside the province is certainly needed – but in practice it’s hard to know how much he’ll be able to add, especially if it’s a source of tension within the camp.  One thing’s for sure, Farrell is a strong character and will try to impose his will on the team.  Be prepared for a return to, erm, traditional Wigan values.

The sense that Munster are reaping what they sowed in appointing this group is inescapable. We blogged back in spring 2014 on Axel’s appointment and his ALL-MUNSTER ticket. While much of the critical commentary went as far as a damp Beatles-at-Shea-Stadium esque fawning over a “return to traditional Munster values”, we had some concerns:

“His main issue- as is the case for seemingly every Munster coach since the year dot – will be recruiting and developing capable centres to provide a threat and most importantly, bring the lethal strike runners Simon Zebo and Keith Earls onto the ball as much as possible.  Casey Laulala is heading for the exit and it looks increasingly like James Downey will be joining him.  Foley will need to recruit, and recruit well.” In fact – Foley has not only recruited badly (Tyler Bleyendaal, journeyman Andrew Smith) but he’s allowed JJ Hanrahan to leave, has converted Denis Hurley into the new Ma’a Nonu Shontayne Hape, and has presided over the catastrophic decline in form of Ian Keatley.

“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.” The gamble has failed pretty comprehensively, no doubt about it, and the appointment of Farrell is more evidence.

And perhaps most cutting from a fans perspective:

“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.” Funny, this one turned out to be on the money

Anyway, it looks like a no-win situation for Foley – no improvement, and he’ll get the blame, they do better, and Farrell gets the credit. And an upturn in results is possible as the fixtures look relatively kind, albeit with the potential for (more) serious humiliation:

  • ERC: Stade Francais (H) – after last week, even a losing bonus point will be seen as a victory of sorts, but a victory is conceivable – Stade have only won one away game all year and have succumbed to the might of .. um .. Brive and Agen
  • ERC: Treviso (A) – surely they won’t lose .. surely!
  • Zebre (A) – see above
  • Ospreys (H)
  • Glasgae (A) – two tough fixtures, but during the Six Nations both will be denuded to an extent Munster clearly won’t, with only one player (Conor Murray) currently a lock in the Irish 23
  • Treviso (A)
  • Dragons (H)
  • Zebre (H) – 3 wins in a row would be your baseline expectation here

So not impossible that by Easter, Munster are back in the top 4 of the league with ERC qualification assured and with some sort of momentum garnered .. for which Farrell gets the credit. Foley’s team are most certainly dead ducks, and it remains to see whether the man himself is as well – both Ulster and Leinster have sacked coaches late in the season and wound up scrambling to get a coaching team in place.

That said, they’ll need to get several of the units on the pitch working far better.  The scrum has been awful all season, and there’s little that can be done at this stage short of winding back BJ Botha’s clock by five years.  The second row has been remarkably poor considering they have three internationals to choose from, and CJ Stander has been virtually a one man band in the backrow.  As for Ian Keatley, his haywire season took another nosedive on Saturday; all the more remarkable as he was man of the match against Ulster the previous week.  Meanwhile Simon Zebo’s mind appears to be halfway to Toulouse.  At least they can console themselves that they won’t lose too many players for the Six Nations.

Free Pass

In the aftermath of Connacht’s win at Thomond Park, Murray Kinsella did a fantastic piece of analysis on Connacht’s skillset – and one worth reading if you haven’t done so yet. It has been a consistent feature of Connacht’s play this season – good on-pitch awareness and skillful play executed well. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the other provinces, who continue to stink the place out.

The most pungent right now is Munster, who followed up the defeat to Connacht with a lamentable defeat away to the Dragons. Without a doubt, missing their best two players (POM and Conor Murray) is a big blow for Munster, but the on-pitch ineptitude was pretty shocking – bar a questionable (at best) TMO decision, they never looked like beating either Connacht at home or the Dragons away. And, with all due respect to our Western Brethren and Stephen Jones’ local Pro12 muckers, that’s quite a come down for Munster.

So, you’d think everyone would be up in arms about it, asking tough questions about where they are going? What the gameplan is? Whether such an abundance of turnovers and gormless attacking is worthy of criticism? Not a bit of it – on Second Captains yesterday and in the IT today, Gerry was at pains to pin Munster’s issues on a host of extraneous factors:

  • “The Dragons have a decent home record and Rodney Parade isn’t an easy place to go” – cut me some slack, provinces would view this as a chance for 5 points in recent years
  • “Munster suffering more than anyone from fans’ post-RWC hangover” – not sure of the science behind this, but in 2007 and 2011, Munster seemed rejuvenated by having their Irish players back
  • “We know how hard Limerick has been hit during the recession” – not downplaying the impact of a savage recession, but it’s been pretty much nationwide, and the economy has been improving for three years now
  • “The 7.45 kick-off on a Saturday night in December isn’t helpful.” – really? A few years ago, Gerry was complaining that Munster didn’t get enough Saturday night kickoffs due to “English arrogance”

When we talk with Munster fans, we hear a very different suite of concerns, and we can’t help but feel a concerted effort is being made to avoid asking tough questions of our native coaches. When Rob Penney was Munster coach, Wednesday Night Rugby on Off The Ball with the now-SC team was at times a long diatribe against Penney’s selection/tactics from Thornley and Wood, yet there was nary a mention of any questions for the coach to answer when McDevitt had Gerry on yesterday. Equally, when Matt O’Connor was Leinster coach, he was the lightning rod (correctly, certainly by his second season) for criticism. Now, it’s just a collection of things that Foley can do nothing about – although there is a pretty coherent argument that dropping attendances are directly related to the faire on offer, which is not being explored.

Thing is – no-one wants to just beat up on people just for the sake of it, particularly when they have the status the likes of Axel and Leo Cullen have, but if we want our native coaches to develop, we surely need to hold them to account honestly. And in a world where Pat Lam has the likes of Denis Buckley and Ally Muldowney playing like All Blacks (sorry for using the term, but we feel it is appropriate here), Foley really should be doing better with the players he has, many of whom Lam would kill for. Time for some honest discussion.

Just What Was That?

When we heard the news that Conor Murray was going to miss the trip to Globo Gym and their 4G pitch (bet you hadn’t heard Sarries had one, had you? The Irish media don’t dwell on it much), any lingering hopes we had that Munster could eke out a win pretty much disappeared.  On the eve of the game we tweeted that Egg Chaser was predicting a drubbing by Saracens but Palla was going for more of a bloodless coup.  It turned out to be both.

Munster were routed in every facet of play – the scrum, which had creaked under BJ Botha all season, was marched backwards. By Mako Vunipola! The breakdown was a breeze if you were a Saracen – every ruck resulted in nice easy ball, whereas when Munster had possession, poor Duncan Williams, hardly blessed with decisiveness at the best of times, had opposition forwards all over him. The lineout was a fiasco. Munster’s kicking game took no account of the Allianz Park surface. Their big players were not a factor. Munster simply could not get into the game.  Any time they had a platform they made a mistake.  Saracens are a good side, one of four sides (Toulon, Clermont and the Saints being the others) who will not be happy unless they win this competition, but the scale of Munster’s humiliation was frightening to behold. Just how did it come to this?

It was all neatly encapsulated by the two trademark BT Sport-mid-match interviews with coaching staff.  Mick O’Driscoll’s vox-pops sounded just as Saracens were in the process of gaining 30m and setting up the platform that would result in their first try.  It gave the impression of a man fiddling while Rome burns.  At around the 60 minute mark, Saracens’ Paul Gustard was asked to discuss the victory in waiting and tried to convince those watching at home that it wasn’t done yet, but you could tell from his demeanour that he knew the game was won.

It’s been a miserable first half-season for Axel Foley in the job he has worked so hard to get – the brave and the faithful can live with indifferent league form, especially when it comes sweetened with two thumping victories over the arrogant Ladyboys from Dublin, they can live with defeats to sides as good as Clermont and Saracens, but Munster fans are wondering how the team can go out so far off the mental pitch required for a game aptly described by Axel as one with “no tomorrows”. They had a tough pool, no question, but it wasn’t in the script needing a last minute drop goal to beat Sale, or losing their home unbeaten record to French teams, or to lay down so meekly against a team perfectly placed to make Munster bitter. Rob Penney’s teams might have benefitted from kinder draws, but any European exit was with their heads held high, making a higher-quality team sweat buckets before getting over the line.

Penney himself never got an easy ride from the press – the stuttering league performances were seen as evidence he didn’t fit, and the wide-wide games with Donncha O’Callaghan popping up on the wing before Munster had “earned that right” were scoffed at as an alien style imposed on an unwilling team. When Munster did resort to a fruitier forwards-based effort and won, the credit went to the players. When Penney’s contract wasn’t renewed and Axel Foley was given the job, many felt Penney would be glad to be out of there – getting not much credit for dragging a transitional team to successive HEC semi-finals. But no Penney team ever capitulated like Foley’s Munster did at the weekend, and it makes you wonder where the camp is right now – when Paul O’Connell is making elementary errors and Peter O’Mahony is anonymous for 60 minutes, it needs to to be asked why the players aren’t producing.

Is it the personnel? Well, it’s a very similar squad to the one that made last year’s semi-finals – POC might be a year older, but Murray is if anything even better, players like Dave Foley, Duncan Casey and CJ Stander are much improved, and Ian Keatley is having his best season as a professional. The centres are different, but hey, what’s new? It’s more or less the same panel.  Injuries?  Sure, Varley and Sherry are a miss at hooker,. but Casey has played well enough to be a minor cause celebre when he didn’t get picked for Ireland in November.  Keith Earls hasn’t been fit, but he missed a lot of rugby last year, and if anything the backrow options have been enhanced by the return to form of Tommy O’Donnell.

Is it the gameplan? The narrow forwards-based plan is certainly more like (cover your ears) “traditional Munster values”, but then again, so is winning important games in Europe, as is producing the type of clinical control exhibited by Saracens on Saturday. Their most-talented youngster, JJ Hanrahan, has tired of not playing and has flounced off to Northampton – Foley pronounced himself “mystified” then picked Dinny Hurley and left Hanrahan kicking his heels for 76 minutes.

Is there something else? It feels like raking up old muck, but when emailgate happened, most of the punditerati were on the TV and the radio to say it was much ado over nothing and the squad would quickly move on. All except Bernard Jackman that is, who said it would destroy the dynamic in the dressing room and take a very long time and hard work to move past – it’s important and relevant because Jackman was the only pundit asked who actively coaches a proper side – Grenoble, currently sixth in the Top 14, and with a good case to be a better side than Ulster, Munster or Leinster. Maybe the squad just hasn’t move on yet.

Four years ago, the last time Munster failed to make the quarter-finals, the coach had the Week 6 balm of a home game against an average English side – last time Lahn Oirish, this time Sale Sharks – Munster will want to see an angry response to get some mojo back, for what it’s worth. Then the real business gets underway.  McGahan used the ensuing Pro12 campaign to rebuild and made some changes, notably bringing in Conor Murray and James Cawlin for Strings and Leamy, and Munster went on to win the Pro12. It’s imperative that Munster do something similar – though probably more along the lines of expanding the gameplan than bringing in new personnel – and grab this season by the scruff of the neck. No-one wants the defining memory to be the limp capitulation in Allianz Park.

Double Judas

Irish rugby players who go abroad to earn their living generally fall into 2 buckets:

  1. Top class internationals who left at their peak
  2. Those who were not in line for a central contract and were dispensable to their provinces

The former basket consists of Jonny Sexton – Sexton was pissed off at the union’s slow pace of negotiations two years ago, felt insulted at their initial offer and flounced off to (nouveau riche) Racing. Since then, the Union have upped their game, and have kept the likes of DJ Church, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip in Ireland despite strong French interest – and Sexton himself is returning next season. The Sexton move was a game-changer that left no-one happy and has brought about earlier contractual negotiations, longer contracts and private investment with a goal to keeping the international squad based at home. In 2008, Tommy Bowe left Ulster for the Hairsprays, but at that stage his international career had stalled and Ulster were an utter shambles that he wanted out of.

In the second category, there exists various former internationals who were offered a better contract abroad (Tom Court, Tomas O’Leary), journeyman pros (James Downey, Gareth Steenson) and younger players looking for a new start after their careers stalled at home (Chris Farrell, Adam Macklin, James McKinney, Conor Gilsenan, iHumph). In all these cases, they are players who were not mapped internationally and were expendable to the domestic game.

The potential transfer of JJ Hanrahan from Munster to the Saints, as reported by Gerry yesterday, falls into neither of these buckets. Hanrahan is a former underage (schools and under-20) star who is generally seen as the future in the province – he is clearly behind Sexton, Madigan, Jackson and Keatley right now at international level, but has bags of potential and certainly appears to have the skills to grow into a key player for Munster, and maybe Ireland. But it seems he doesn’t see it that way – he seems to feel he is trapped on the bench and not getting adequate opportunities. As Gerry pointed out, last year he started 11 games at outhalf and came off the bench in every HEC game – this year he has started twice and was left kicking his heels while Munster came a cropper in Thomond last week.

Hanrahan is not only playing second fiddle to Ian Keatley, which we can understand at least even if we don’t always agree with it, but being out of the team at the expense of Denis Hurley is quite another matter – Hurley is a good honest pro, but apart from bashing up the middle, doesn’t offer a huge amount in an attacking sense. Hanrahan has been rooted to the bench, but isn’t even getting used as an impact sub, unlike under Penney last year.  It’s been one of the season’s curiosities because, to our eyes at least, Hanrahan has played well when he’s been let on the pitch.

Also since last year, Munster have signed Tyler Bleyendaal, an almost exact replica in positional terms of Hanrahan, Andrew Smith, another bosh it up the middle centre and Pat Howard, a medical joker who got straight into the team. The new head coach, Axel, has talked a good game about moving the ball through the backline and playing creative centres, but has reverted to reductive boshing in the big games – Hanrahan hasn’t got a look in. Being rooted to the bench while Munster trundled the ball backwards against Clermont for 80 minutes must have been galling – he might not have made any difference, but the sight of Plan B being the same as Plan A (bosh it up the middle) must have made him wonder. You sense that Hanrahan just doesn’t fit into Axel’s plans right now.   Much has been made of Hanrahan starting the season with an injury, which restricted his gametime in the early part, but it’s December now.  He played back-to-back games at 15 against Ulster and the Dragons – last we saw of him he was putting in a classy grubber kick for a try against Dragons – but still they wouldn’t let him on against Clermont.

And now Northampton have come sniffing with an offer (apparently £150k) that would dwarf anything Munster could offer, given general debt levels and the fact that he is seen as a reserve – it’s decent wedge for an essentially unproven player. Hanrahan is clearly a young man in a hurry – he is six months younger than his underage team-mate Paddy Jackson, who has been Ulster starter for two and a half years and has nine Ireland caps, and you wonder does Hanrahan compare himself to Wee PJ. Its a slightly different scenario for a number of reasons – PJ was outhalf for the under-20s when both were in the team – and Jackson also captained the side. PJ was coming from a different place, and Ulster coaches couldn’t wait to start him – he debut-ed just a month after turning 19, almost four years ago. Also, the Ulster jersey fell into PJs lap following some rubbishy performances from iHumph in Munster and Connacht in 2012, after which iHumph left the building, leaving Jackson unopposed as starter. This was both a blessing (allowed him to grow into the jersey without serious competition) and a curse (he effectively immediately became the number three outhalf in Ireland and was parachuted into the national team in non-ideal circumstances with non-ideal results).

Axel responded to Gerry’s story and talked about preparation and injury recovery, which is correct and laudable, but then topped it off by saying “we were considering introducing him at inside centre but Denis Hurley made a couple of breaks”. Talk about depressing – if Hanrahan does leave, you have a smoking gun right there – reductive and conservative rugby in the biggest games where a couple of minor breaks (that we must have missed – even ESPN had Hurley carrying just 5 times for 10 metres) as part of an ineffective gameplan trumps the potential to open the game up and run around Clermont instead of at them. After email-gate was classified as careless, letting the Golden Boy leave for want of opportunities would be a bit of an indictment on Axel’s squad management.

If Hanrahan does move, not only is it a disaster for Munster, where Hanrahan looked the most natural backline talent since Anto Horgan Keith Earls, but for Ireland, where the model of keeping young players at home and husbanding them through province (Pro12 then HEC/ERCC) to national training squad to national team is being challenged. Our top youngsters taking off to Northampton is not part of the plan. On the bright side, the Saints would not be paying him £150k a year to sit on the bench and give Stephen Myler hugs – he will be getting paid to play for one of the top teams in a league where he will be directly facing some excellent players – game managers like Nuck Evans and “Faz”, creative talents as George Ford, Charlie Hodgson and Danny Cipriani, and also potentially Jimmy Gopperth, who recently killed Bambi.

If he does leave, the best case is that Hanrahan wins the Saints starting jersey and is playing in a team potentially better than any Irish province, and who will be challenging for domestic and European silverware. Joe Schmidt cannot ignore him, he gets called up for Ireland and levers that into a bumper central contract and comes home as Munster starter in 2/3 years. Or, he does a Geordan Murphy and settles down and spends his career in England – his form demands selection and he picks up 50+ caps over a long career. Going further down the outcome chain, he does what a previous Munster prodigy did and spends his career in the Premiership without ever nailing down a place in the Ireland squad – the Jeremy Staunton path. Worst case, he can’t get shirt, sets his career back two years and limps home with his tail between the legs having stalled in his development – this is probably unlikely, he’s clearly talented and ambitious.

This career path is a little bit of an unknown, and carries risks for Irish rugby’s professional development model, but that’s not Hanrahan’s concern – he feels like he has more to offer and isn’t getting the chances at Munster. Nothing’s done yet, and he could yet sign on for Munster.  This could all have a happy ending, but even then, it has shone a spotlight on a curious unwillingness to embrace talent over the mundane.

Perception is Reality

It’s funny how one game can change the perception of a team. Especially when it’s Leinster vs Munster – for all the two provinces successes, they still measure themselves against one another. It’s pretty tough to remember before the two most famous of their clashes, but in both cases, perceptions after the game were diametrically different to those before:

  • 2006: Before the game, Munster were thought of as having lost their best chance to win a HEC when losing an epic semi-final to Wasps in Lansdowne Road. Leinster were coming off a most stunning second half of attacking rugby in Toulouse (an actual fortress back then) and were slight favourites going into a game where it was “how do you stop Leinster’s razzle-dazzle back play?” Post-game, Munster morphed in an unstoppable machine of forward power and passion, and Leinster became the ladyboys
  • 2009: Leinster were still the ladyboys – they’d tightened up up front, but couldn’t score tries and were liable to lose to a Castres or an Embra and not one to put any money on. Munster were double European champions who had just hammered the Hairspray Glacticos in the quarter-finals. The hubris was in overdrive, but then 80 minutes later, Munster had chinks in the armour – now they were an ageing team whose aura was punctured, while Leinster were a force to be reckoned with.

Nobody’s saying this game will prove to be as landscape-shifting as those, but the comprehensive nature of Munster’s victory at least passed an unwanted torch up the N7 for the next few weeks.  On Friday, Leinster had had a scratchy start to the season, but Munster were supposedly bordering on crisis – management’s feelings on some fringe squad players had gone public and it felt like the squad hadn’t quite managed to forget about it. They had lost in Thomond twice, in front of meagre attendances and only managed to beat hapless Eye-talians.

Now? Well, Munster are back to porridge – a pack whose feral intensity cannot be matched, driven on by the personality of Paul O’Connell and led by the general behind the pack – this time not a 10, but a 9; Conor Murray. The hard-working backs chip in, but it’s all about the piano shifters. And CJ Stander?!  What a find.  He looks increasingly like the real deal. And who cares about the early season messing about? Don’t worry about the Ospreys or whatever, we can do it when it matters. We got this one.  Was it ever any different?

It was remarkable how Munster got across the gainline in nearly every phase, cleared out brilliantly, and presented the ball quickly. When the pack deigned to let the backs have the ball, Murray distributed and kicked superbly, putting up contestable box kicks (which Munster invariably eventually won) and showing up the callow positioning of hipster’s choice Mick McGrath. Dinny Hurley had an excellent game, fixing the Leinster centres and making space for Keatley to orchestrate yet more gainline success. They were more disciplined than the four – four! – yellow cards suggests. The first was for cumulative penalties in Leinster’s half, and the fourth in garbage time. Bird-brained pair BJ Botha and Dave Foley conspired to give Leinster a thoroughly undeserved toehold in the game, but predictably they couldn’t take advantage.

And Leinster? Well, Leinster are the ones bordering on crisis now. They weren’t exactly in a fantastic place before the game, but they were so utterly dominated at the breakdown and now have been left with more injuries and selection issues (not of the good sort) in several positions. Jimmy Gopperth, for once not having an armchair ride behind a dominant pack, was abysmal – his passing was all over the place and his kicking aimless and often pointless. The nadir came when he kicked the ball twice – twice! – down the throat of Munster’s outside backs in oceans of space when Leinster were two – two! – men up. Barnesy remarked that Gopperth panicked, and that’s fair – he crumbled under pressure. Matt O’Connor has hoisted up the Gopperth flag, but even he has to reconsider based on that performance – Madigan might a little wilder, but if your pack is going backwards, Gopperth effectively offers you no game-winning options. As Keynes might have put it, when your outside half plays himself off the team, you change your opinion.

At the breakdown, Leinster were blown away – Dom Ryan finished the game as the team’s leading tackler, but had no discernible impact on the game, bar a few Hollywood tackles on Robin Copeland. On paper Leinster looked to have an advantage at the breakdown, with Munster’s backrow stacked with ball carriers, but that was turned on its head. Leinster are really down to the bare bones – Jordi Murphy can’t return quickly enough, and Shane Jennings would also have made a big difference.

And to add to DJ Church, Jack McGrath, Marty Moore, Sean O’Brien, Murphy, Shane Jennings, Luke Fitz Roysh, Dave Kearndashian on the disabled list is Ferg, Tadgh Furlong and Rosser. Ferg had a horrendous-looking leg injury when some big lump fell on him, and both tightheads limped off looking uncomfortable.  Even Joe Schmidt’s Super-Duper All Conquering Leinster wouldn’t have been able to withstand such an injury crisis. And this iteration of Leinster aren’t super-duper or all conquering.

In weeks ahead, what looked like a group of death in the ERCC will now be approached with confidence by Munster (though it’s still pretty horrible), whereas Leinster’s gimme group suddenly appears daunting with a decimated pack and no direction to speak of. Funny how perceptions change innit?

Postscript: for this Ulster fan, the game has to be commended for being pretty watchable – not something that can be said about recent vintages of the fixture. High fives all round!

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.

Bloody Foreigners

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.

Epic Odyssey

Once again, into the breach – our brave, faithful, honest and passionate warriors once more hitch planes, trains, automobiles, bikes, segways, scooters and all and every mode of transport possible to get to the south of France, where they will walk over molten lava to the ground to pay homage to their heroes, through the misty air stoked by too much pate and too many Kronenburg’s in De Danu the night before.

As much fun as it is to make fun of the Munster stereotype, Munster in Europe is a great story, and the gift that never stops giving. Somehow they always make the HEC about themselves, the selfish bar stewards!

For the second year in succession, it’s Munster who are the lone Irish standard-bearers at this stage of the competition – and again it’s a tough trip to France to play for a place in the final. Munster might have been faced with a feeble Toulouse challenge in the quarters, but it’s easy to get dragged down the their level – just ask Sarries – and Munster did what they needed to do and more, swatting them aside with consumate ease, and running in bucketloads of tries in the process.

We have a huge amount of time for this Munster team – a young pack executing a technically excellent and accurate game with emphasis on set-piece and maul dominance, Europe’s best scrum-half (did you know he played 10 for Garryowen once?) and slippery and creative outside backs who may or may not celebrate too much when they score tries. Great fun to watch and easy to get behind – the cobwebs of the directionless and indisciplined dog days of the McGahan era, with its belly-tickling European knockout performances, have long been swept away.

But while this Munster team had just three representatives on Joe Schmidt’s Championship-winning Ireland team, and are facing a star-studded Toulon operation that slammed a Leinster side festooned with Irish players into the turf and held them down for 80 minutes, don’t think that a hammering is in order. This is the type of occasion Munster live for – just look at last season when they were mighty close to mugging Clermont – and they will be out like dervishes, without any kind of semblence of respect for Toulon’s big names, who will have to go out and win the game.

There is a bit of history there too – the last time the teams played, the dying sting of the Liginds was devoid of any potency and the team played without shape or discipline; they were tonked. But for Saturday that can be ignored – an almost entirely new Munster side (with Earls, Varley, POC and Cawlin possibly the only survivors) will line out, and Jonny Wilkinson and JM Fernandez Lobbe (swoon) may be the only Toulon players who played in that game.  What, no Paul Sackey?

But let’s be honest – Toulon look just too strong for them – a backrow of Fernandez Lobbe, Steffon Armitage and Juan Smith is World XV stuff, and adding Matthieu Bastaread to the breakdown and Wayne Barnes to the middle only ensures a game that will be played on Toulon’s terms, with no prospect of quick ruck ball and moving the point of the attack. Expect Munster to put up a hell of a fight, but it’s tough to see how they can win without Peter O’Mahony and a viable 10-12 axis. The congregation in the parish of St Axel’s have been raving about CJ Stander for a while now, and he had an excellent game against Toulouse, but this is a different level altogether – if he can impact this match as much as he did that, then maybe the hype is justified. And it’s simply impossible to visualise a universe where Ian Keatley and Oooooooooooooooooooooohh James Downey have the game to take on Wilko and Gits.

And we must take this opportunity to once again implore the media not to try and turn this match into a ridiculous galacticos-against-the-parish narrative.  There’s no room for slackers in Toulon’s hiring policy – the so-called galacticos are in fact men of iron who would die with their boots on whoever they were playing for – and the fans and players have a bond no different to that of the Irish provinces in what is a rugby-mad town.

Add in that Toulon’s only loss in their last eight games was in Clermont, and that they have effectively secured a bye in le barrage – they only need to avoid defeat at home to Stade in their last game – and Toulon’s focus will be four-square on defending their HEC trophy (and keeping it forever?). Munster will arrive in Marseille confident and in no mood to lay down, but this Toulon team will eventually overcome them – when you can bring on the likes of Castro and Bryan Habana to face down Stephen Archer and Johne Murphy off the Munster bench, it’s unlikely to end in defeat.  We expect it to be a sort-of-reverse of the Clermont fixture last year.  In that game Clermont stormed out of the traps and threatened to destroy Munster in the first 40 minutes.  But Munster held on by their fingernails and gradually got a grip of the game.  Toulon tenfd to start slower and ratchet up the intensity in increments, so it could be neck-and-neck after 50 to 60 minutes.

Still, Toulon by 8-12 after a mighty first hour.

In the other semi, we fancied Saracens on the basis of home advantage and Clermont’s renowned ability to lose to inferior teams in pressure moments, but we are beginning to waver. On Sunday, Barnesy effortlessly catalogued Sarries ability to lose at home to French teams in recent years, and the memory of their ineptitude in Ravers won’t fade – but for Schalk Brits and Billy Vunipola, they would have lost to a 14-man team missing Rory Best and with Ruan Pienaar flying on one wing. Perhaps Clermont will expose Saracens for what they are – pretenders on the biggest stage. Maybe they need to go off and set up their own tournament or something.

Enter Axel

We joked back in May 2012 that “Penney is … a sacrificial lamb who will get to soak up all the ire of the fans by continuing Ludd’s work of the last 18 months and retiring the Liginds one by one and then buggering off to let Axel take over once the newbies have been transitioned in”.

Well, looks like we were right. While Penney was offered only a one year contract (technically, an optional extension), Axel is getting two, with an option of one more. Not that there is anything wrong with that in and of itself. Rugby is a business and its incumbent upon the chief executive(s) of any business to put in place the management/leadership structure that leads to the most success. If the Munster hierarchy have decided that Axel is better placed than Penney to deliver what Munster ultimately need (silverware) then they have their man in place.  Now he just has to go and do it.

Penney was brought in largely because of his work in Canterbury at underage and development level, and was charged with bringing the likes of Tommy O’Donnell, Mike Sherry and Peter O’Mahony up to Heineken Cup level and restore the team’s playing identity.  Much of that has been done, and he leaves Munster in a much better place than when he took over.  Axel Foley takes over a team with a winning mentality and a core of good players who will be around for years to come.  The core of his pack are of the right age profile, and where there are a couple of old lags in wind-down, succession looks to be being managed.  Paul O’Connell will be around until 2016 and BJ Botha will still be here next season and when he does retire, Stephen Archer should be ready to take over (presuming his development over the last 12 months continues).  Dave Foley has stepped up the rungs to ease O’Callaghan further out of the picture and Robin Copeland should smoothly take over from the evergreen James Coughlan, who continues to be productive.

The half-back situation is also positive, with Hanrahan on track to take over from Ian Keatley, and Penney has been wise not to rush this process.  He’ll be ready when he’s ready, and he’s having a fine campaign in the Pro12 in the meantime.

His main issue- as is the case for seemingly every Munster coach since the year dot – will be recruiting and developing capable centres to provide a threat and most importantly, bring the lethal strike runners Simon Zebo and Keith Earls onto the ball as much as possible.  Casey Laulala is heading for the exit and it looks increasingly like James Downey will be joining him.  Foley will need to recruit, and recruit well.

The real fascination will lie in what direction Foley will take the team.  Will he tear up the current script and start anew?  Or is he a ‘continuity’ man As tempting as it is to see the move as a coup d’etat on Foley’s part, it’s unlikely to be the case.  The other temptation is to buy the stereotype of Foley as the ultimate old-school Munster forward who will bring their game back to the dark ages.  “We’ve had 10 man rugby, now you’re playing 9-man rugby – when will this end?”  “When we find a number eight that can kick.”  But that looks over-simplified; Foley was a smart rugby player who got by on his ability to read of the game, and presumably brings those qualities to the table as a coach.

However, it does seem unlikely that he’s a disciple of Penneyball in all its wonderful purity.  He poured cold water on Ger Gilroy’s attempts to get him to say Munster’s success wasn’t always forward oriented on Newstalk last night. But while Munster never looked totally comfortable with Penney’s gameplan, it was hard to see exactly how else they could succeed.  Their pack isn’t really capable of grinding others into the dirt, but is big on mobility and athleticism.  The centres rather than the forwards were the main obstacles to it succeeding.  It’s probably the end to the idea of Donncha O’Callaghan hanging out on the wing looking for the ball, but hopefully some of the spirit of dynamic forward play will be retained.

He should also benefit from much goodwill from the public and media.  As a very fondly remembered player (the Leinster fans’ forum includes Axel Foley in every poll as a reference to Munster fans voting for him in every ‘greatest ever’ list), and the only Irish head coach at provincial level, the Munster faithful will be fully behind him, and he should have no trouble with a meeja who have been campaigning for him to get this gig since before Rob Penney took over.  This is one coach everyone wants to see succeed.  But as every coach knows, it’s a different pressure being the top man than one of the coaching team.

Let’s hope one of the brightest young Irish coaches around can build on Penney’s groundwork – and by Gawd it’s nice to see an Irishman coaching one of the provinces.