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.

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The Clermont of Ireland

Ulster’s long wait for a trophy continues, after another heart-breaking loss – this time to Glasgae in Scotstoun. Ulster have made it a bit of a speciality to lose knockout matches in ever more imaginative fashion, and this one was the worst yet. The 2013 Pro12 final was largely acknowledged as pretty unlucky – Leinster were the better team on the day (and, admittedly, one of the best teams in Europe), and their experience told. Still, Ulster didn’t help themselves then, showing a distinct lack of composure when it mattered .. something that sounds familiar now.

Last year, they stepped out to an absolutely boiling Ravers … and managed to get Jared Payne sent off after 4 minutes. They nearly won, but then again – they didn’t. We, unlike most of Ireland, thought it was a red card, but whatever you think about that – Ulster lost largely through losing a man so early.

This year, after 70 minutes, the game was locked down. Ulster, though only 5 points ahead on the scoreboard, were well on top all over the field – Glasgow were desperate and one more score and it was over. What happened?

  • Dumb Penalties: ah yes, the familiar Irish refrain – someone else’s fault. Gerry today demanded that Clancy be held to account for giving a penalty to Glasgow for Ricky Lutton high-arming Matawalu. He also claimed Owens would not have given the penalty, which is rubbish. Sure, Matawalu embarrassed himself and Glasgow by going down like an Italian in the box, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a penalty. It was, and it was so incredibly stupid at a critical stage of the game, that it still infuriates us now. And its funny – Gerry wasn’t demanding that Garces be held to account for a lopsided outcome in his favourite statistic – the penalty count – when Leinster played Bath .. would that have anything to do with the Irish team being favoured?
  • Composure: even when Glasgow did score, Ulster had 4 minutes to fashion an opportunity. Four minutes – a lifetime for the best teams. Even for above average ones – France in 2007 in Croker, Ireland in 2009 got a drop goal, Munster on countless occasions, BNZ against us on numerous recent occasions. Ulster not only didn’t get a sniff, but they barely got the ball back – they approached the task with nothing that felt like dead-eyes cold-blooded focus, more of a harum-scarum hope-for-the-best mentality. They looked defeated. Even when Glasgow insanely went for a 30% penalty kick with time already up, and inevitably gave Ulster one final, undeserved, chance – you never sensed a score was on.

The same old problems over again. You have to compare this Ulster team does pressure to how the most recent great Irish provincial side would have reacted – Joe Schmidt’s Leinster team. That team was festooned with intelligent, streetwise, shrewd and assured players – DJ Church, Ross, Cullen, Hines/Thorn, O’Brien, Heaslip, Sexton, BOD, Dorce, Nacewa, Kearney all fit that description. And they had the best coach around , who got those players to that stage. At various points early in their career, Healy and SOB were both indisciplined penalty machines – but both had got that out of their systems by that stage.

Unlike, say, Iain Henderson – NWJMB is a force of nature and one of Ulster’s best players, but he gives away too many penalties. We are pretty sure he will lose that from his game – he’s pretty laid back and intelligent, but he is still learning his trade. Dan Tuohy is another man who never seems to be able to shake off the ability to get on referee’s wrong side.  Roger Wilson is a player who is great at running into things, but lacks composure at crucial moments – you’d never mix him up with someone like Heaslip, despite what Darren Cave thinks.

Elsewhere in the Ulster pack, Besty and Henry have a huge amount of nous, brains and the ability to think clearly under pressure .. but there aren’t many other names that jump out at you from the forwards as ones you’d want on your teamsheet during squeaky bum time. Even Pienaar doesn’t have the best record when the heat is on. Ulster have the same problems they had two years ago, and they have lots of work to do this summer. Until Ulster prove otherwise, they are the Clermont of Ireland – likeable, play great rugby, but crumble under pressure.

 

Squeaky Bum Time

Egg was minding his own business contemplating watching Jurassic Park III on <insert rubbish cable TV channel> on Saturday night when he noticed a tweet from a chap he’d never heard of. No, not the Examiner’s chief rugby correspondent, but “Paul Morgan”. Morgan had the following to say for himself: “The key thing since European qualification has changed… People are talking about and caring about the Pro12 more than ever”.

It was only after one of our eagle-eyed followers pointed it out that we noticed Morgan was Communications Director for Premiership Rugby aka the lackey of McCafferty, Craig and co. Sigh. Propaganda justifying a position held for monetary reasons then? Well, in Morgan’s case, yes, obviously. Unless this view, which is his own of course, happily happened to mirror 100% the views of his mates (and paymasters in this case). It’s nice when that happens, isn’t it? – kind of like when Charlie Mulqueen points out that it wasn’t Denis Hurley’s fault that Munster got knocked out of Europe, and his stint at 12 was an unreserved success story. Right.

Anyway, back to Morgan. Problem is, fulminate away, but when you have finished thumping your John Knox-signed bible/infusing your olive oil with white truffle/singing Amhran na bFiann extremely passionately/going to Saw Doctors concerts (delete as appropriate depending upon provincial affiliation), you’ll realize that he’s right. Maybe for the wrong reasons, but he’s right.

Take Friday night’s Cardiff-Connacht game for example – Cardiff’s last minute win was exciting sure, and would have been equally exciting in years gone by, but it meant a whole lot more this time. Cardiff kept their faint hopes of an ERCC slot alive, and kept Connacht close to the chasing pack at the same time – and the huge roar at the final whistle spoke volumes to the importance of the game for the league as a whole, as well as both teams. And the bizarre story Pat Lam had to tell about parking spaces and refereeing bias in the heat of passion would likely not have made it to print were it a meaningless mid-table clash. Less two bald men fighting over a comb, more two thinning on top men fighting over the right to be fed to Toulon in bite-size chunks.

At the top of the Pro12, there are five teams who are more or less qualified for the ERCC – Glasgae, Munster, Ulster, Ospreys and Leinster – and four of them will make the knockouts. Glasgow have the top spot more or less sewn up, but behind them it’s three into four.  The Irish provinces have just come off the back of a torrid weekend, with all four losing to their somewhat less illustrious, regionally composite Welsh counterparts.  A portent of doom for next weekend?  Hopefully not.

Leinster are in a bit of a jam, lying in fifth, but they are still in the reckoning.  They have still to play both Ulster and Glasgae, and are well in the reckoning.  They have made an unusual habit of throwing points away against the poorer teams in the league this year, and chances are they will have to go to Ravenhill and win.  They are also the only team in the competition that has European distractions ahead of them.

Ulster and Munster are locked on have the toughest fixtures, with only two home games and three against fellow top five teams. Their meeting on the penultimate weekend may swing it – not only do Ulster have a good record against Munster, but its in Ravers, so advantage Ulster for that one.

One of the hapless Italians will join the big five in Europe, plus one of Connacht, Scarlets, Embra (or maybe – at a stretch – Cardiff). Scarlets host Embra next, and also have games against both hapless Italians – albeit away. They are entitled to be considered favourites to nab the final spot. From an Irish perspective, Connacht will need to earn it the hard way if they are to qualify – with games against each of the current top 4 to come. Perhaps they should, y’know, reserve a parking spot for the ref at the dog track..