No time for an easy transition as Munster evolve on the run

 

While time waits for no team, in Munster’s case there are still no time-outs, writes GERRY THORNLEY

ONE OF the side-effects of a great team growing old together is that the eventual, inevitable rebuilding has to be all the more radical. But, transitional phase or not, Munster’s history demands that they remain competitive, especially in the Heineken Cup. Thus, while time waits for no team, in Munster’s case there are still no time-outs.

When they pitched up for the quarter-finals as reigning European champions three seasons ago, all but two of the starting XV in Declan Kidney’s last match, (the triumphant 2008 final against Toulouse) were there for the kick-off – Paul Warwick and Keith Earls coming in for Denis Hurley and the departed Rua Tipoki.

Earls contributed two tries, with Warwick landing two stunning drop goals to augment his try along with another from Doug Howlett and 17 points from Ronan O’Gara. Munster won 43-9 and soon after Ian McGeechan and co unashamedly dipped into the Munster zeitgeist by picking a record eight of that team for the Lions’ tour to South Africa.

Injuries would rule out Tomás O’Leary and Jerry Flannery, both of whom have been plagued ever since, and suspension would do for the now retired Alan Quinlan, before the semi-final defeat to Leinster.

Tony McGahan, defensive coach for the 2008 triumph before succeeding Kidney, would have looked into his crystal ball and deduced that a great team would soon be entering a transitional phase under his watch.

“There’s been a huge change and a rapid change,” he admits, “and I suppose we knew from about four years ago that we would be reaching this at some point. It was always our position to keep going for the first two years at least and then integrate change slowly, and get to a point where we could still be competitive.”

All of which is eminently natural, and happens the world over in team sports. Nonetheless, he adds, “I don’t think there’s too many examples of a team like Munster where such a large group of players played together for so long and had such success together. It’s not just the first XV, it’s 25/26 players. Almost all of them have been together.”

In any event, last Saturday in Parc y Scarlets, only Lifemi Mafi, O’Gara and Paul O’Connell remained of that starting line-up which filleted the Ospreys, along with Hurley of the 2008 final line-up in the Millennium Stadium. Not that McGahan is looking for excuses.

“Last year, not qualifying by a point, we only had ourselves to blame with regards to the London Irish result (a 23-17 defeat in the opener away) and against the Ospreys not getting a fourth-try bonus point (in the 22-16 win) at home when we had 10 minutes on the opposition try line, and not winning away to the Ospreys when we had ample opportunity.

“The Toulon game was what it was. They played exceptionally well and we were exceptionally poor. Whether we were good enough to go through would be difficult to judge, but certainly this year we’re fighting as hard as we can.”

While McGahan envisaged change, not to the extent that has transpired. Munster could hardly have expected any more from Quinlan, Frankie Sheahan or John Hayes, whose retirement is imminent, but they wouldn’t have expected to lose Ian Dowling and Barry Murphy so prematurely to career-ending injuries as well. Quinlan, Hayes, Dowling and Murphy were all in the starting team against Clermont on this weekend only three years ago.

“Much of that has been outside of our control and then you look at our injury profile,” notes McGahan.

Indeed, in addition to the unfortunate Flannery and O’Leary, O’Connell missed 14 months, Marcus Horan endured a lengthy absence with a heart problem, Earls and Denis Leamy have been bedevilled with niggly injuries and this season David Wallace, Howlett and Felix Jones have suffered long-term injuries. All of which has, admits McGahan, meant they’ve lost “a lot of our attacking potency, so you need to find other ways to win”.

Munster have also bought in players, namely Johne Murphy, Will Chambers, Wian du Preez, BJ Botha and Ian Keatley, as well as Peter Borlase. For one of the world’s leading brand names (the only other team on the planet kitted by Adidas are the world champions) and who won Heineken Cups with the likes of Trevor Halstead and Tipoki, it’s not exactly a stellar list and, no disrespect to Chambers, they look short a marquee signing in midfield.

However, McGahan cites the quality of young players coming through, and their contributions so far. “We’ve done a lot of work to make sure those guys are comfortable within the system, so that when we got to this point we weren’t treading water. They were able to hit the ground running and we’ve had a bit of luck, but you need that and some years you get it and some years you don’t. We missed out a bit last year but we’re getting a little bit now with the fight that we’re showing.”

Hence, with Tipoki, Warwick, Tony Buckley and, albeit on loan, Peter Stringer, all departed, McGahan hasn’t been shy about accelerating the transitional phase by promoting younger tyros over more established pillars of the team and squad. So it was 26 of the 51 players used by Munster last season were products of their academy, and last week’s starting line-up featured three of them, Conor Murray, Simon Zebo and Peter O’Mahony, as well as replacement Danny Barnes.

Not only do they need an investment of time in the squad set-up, but in matches as well, and McGahan reckons it generally takes 15 to 20 games before a player truly starts to find his feet in a team such as Munster. “Only then do they feel comfortable in the jersey and comfortable in their own contributions to the team, and then they have their own value to add it. That takes time. It doesn’t come overnight. It comes after learning some harsh lessons, by losses, or loss of form, and I think we’re starting to see the benefits.”

New, younger players – inculcated with the right values and heritage – can also bring their own positive energy and, as with any squad, keep things ticking over. Of the aforementioned quartet, it’s noticeable how much responsibility Murray, especially, brings to the mix, for although today is still only his fourth Heineken Cup match, he does have a World Cup under his belt and as scrumhalf is one of the key strategists.

“You need to keep things ticking over with new players,” acknowledges McGahan, “but the most important thing is that they are seen to have earned their spots through performances in training and matches. If you want to stay there you need to perform.”

Similarly, the three years and varied roles invested in Anthony Foley has also been rewarded. First he coached the Munster Under-20s while working alongside forwards coach Laurie Fisher, then was head coach of the A team as well as the under-20s, before becoming defensive coach last season in tandem with coaching the As and now this season as forwards coach. With Botha’s arrival and Paul McCarthy’s return as scrum coach, the Munster pack has rediscovered their maul and their scrum – in short their bite.

While every team needs rejuvenation, the scale of largely-enforced change has left a shortfall in experience and proven winning mentality. Whereas all of the team which beat the Ospreys knew what it was like to win a Heineken Cup, and most of them had done so twice in three years, that applied to only six of the starting line-up against the Scarlets. And whereas seven of the team which beat the Ospreys, and nine of the match-day 22, had 50-plus Heineken Cups to their names, of the starting XV last Saturday, only O’Connell and O’Gara fell into that category.

Admittedly, five of the replacements’ bench last weekend and in the opening two rounds were core members of the ’08 triumph particularly, and started both the final against Toulouse and the aforementioned 2009 quarter-final against the Ospreys.

You can’t buy experience, particularly off the bench, and Horan, Hayes, Donncha O’Callaghan, Leamy and O’Leary have been invaluable in helping to close out three desperately close wins. They haven’t sulked or felt sorry for themselves.

In this regard, no less than the leadership of O’Connell and O’Gara – each of whom has been in vintage form, whether as Superman/Enforcer or ice-cool quarterback/match winner extraordinaire – McGahan concedes he has been blessed not only with their winning mentality on match day but their leadership throughout the week. “These are the kind of players that no matter what obstacle they may face, they’re going to get through it. We were unused to that last year, notably in the London Irish and Ospreys (away) games.”

If Munster can press home their advantage in this pool against the Scarlets and progress to the knock-out stages then this season, and particularly the opening win over Northampton, could one day be seen as the campaign when the baton was passed on from one generation to the next.

As McGahan concedes dryly, a Munster coach cannot afford the luxury of a transitional time-out, or at any rate “You may not get the opportunity to bear the fruits of it,” he admits ruefully.

But as Graham Henry accepted in coaching the All Blacks, the demands which go hand in hand with a rich heritage and an ultra demanding supporter base can be a positive as well. “We have no problem about having expectations with the club and where we go in Europe, because I think it gives you a real factor about getting your job done. You don’t turn up to work each day without that fear to drive you on and make sure you get that examination every day and every week. It’s what drives us each day to make sure we don’t have any laxity in what we do, that it’s full on every day. It’s a really positive way of dealing with it.”