Alan Quinlan: Crushing defeat shows the huge task now facing Munster
Province lack enough quality players and need to find the money to go and get them
Saracens’ Owen Farrell and Mako Vunipola tackle Munster’s Ian Keatley during the Champions Cup clash at Allianz Park, London. Photograph: James Crombie/Iinpho
Watching Munster on Saturday, I went from being sad to frustrated to angry. Part of everyone who has any interest in Munster knew this was coming but it was still a shock to see them bullied to such an extent. They were overwhelmed physically and just blown to pieces.
By the end of the game , I felt for the players. When I was a player, there was nothing worse than people feeling for you. You’d rather they were pissed off. At the start I was annoyed that they weren’t showing enough grit or taking enough care with their handling. But as the game went on, it was hard to watch.
This is a terrible week to be a Munster player. It won’t be helped by ex-players like me piling on. But I still feel the pain of it. I want them to do well. I want them to be good enough to compete in Europe. Watching them get torn to bits is a killer.
Maybe we were all a bit naive. They were dominated physically by Clermont so it shouldn’t have been such a big surprise that Saracens did the same.
Not for the first time, we probably put a bit too much store in the idea of Munster being able to come up with a performance with their backs against the wall. The chip on the shoulder didn’t do a lot of good this time around.
The problems were obvious. The scrum got demolished. Too many guys fell off tackles. When Munster restarted, they kicked down the throat of Billy Vunipola. It’s a pretty basic rule that you don’t keep giving the opposition’s best ball-carrier the ball – we used to do all we could to keep the ball away from Victor Costello. But time and again, Munster kicked long, straight to Vunipola.
There was no variation. You can have intensity and aggression but when you step up a level, you need more. You need creation and inventiveness. Munster totally lacked that. There was no cutting edge. There was nobody trying something different. Those players just aren’t at Munster.
It is obvious now that things have to change. We have to accept that. Only Denis Hurley and Paul O’Connell remain from the team that won the 2008 Heineken Cup and it’s clear that Munster took their eye off the ball when those teams were successful. The academy hasn’t been bringing though players good enough to replace the ones who retired around the turn of the decade.
Instead of sitting around complaining about how bad things have become, it’s vital to start working out where to go from here. Recruitment is a hugely complicated and important part of running a rugby club and Munster have fallen down in that regard. They need to completely rethink how they go about finding players.
The league isn’t what it was obviously but I’d still like to see the academy players cutting their teeth in it a bit more rather than playing with the ‘A’ team in the British & Irish Cup.
But wherever they play probably isn’t the point. The players coming through aren’t of a high enough standard. Munster have some good young players in the likes of James Cronin, Duncan Casey, Dave Kilcoyne and Dave Foley but they have to improve.
I remember being in the squad when Denis Leamy and Donnacha Ryan came through – you knew right away that these were guys who you’d put your house on to play multiple times for Ireland. There aren’t many of those around at the moment. I can see Jack O’Donoghue growing into a serious player who will play for Munster for a long time and for Ireland as well. But I can’t see too many more who fit into that category.
Munster are not producing players with a cutting edge. Where are the centres? Where is the pace and invention? Three of the Munster backs on Saturday started life in Leinster, another was South African. On the horizon, the only player coming through who looks exciting is Tyler Beleyendaal and he’s a Kiwi.
Every good team withers away eventually and it’s vital that the players coming up behind are there to take their place. That didn’t happen in Munster. They’ve got to the stage now where they’re bringing in project players – three of the five foreign players at the province are being groomed to play for Ireland one day. That’s great in terms of long-term planning but Munster are in trouble now. They need quality players now.
That won’t be easy obviously, given the financial side of things. It’s well-documented that Munster have lost money the last two years. In an ideal world, you want to try and balance the books or turn a profit but with falling attendances and an unsuccessful team, that’s getting tougher and tougher.
Missing out on the quarter-finals will cost more money this year.
Munster have not been good at sourcing finance from outside individuals or businesses with the purpose of funding player signings. That has to happen now. There are surely avenues out there that can be explored to supplement the budget as it stands.
I’m not talking about full salaries being paid but rather contributions that make it possible to get guys in. We can’t let it become the norm that people shrug their shoulders and just give up on the idea of getting world-class players in to go with the home-based players.
The reality is Munster have to be smarter about finding overseas players. BJ Botha is the only foreigner regularly playing in the team and they found him in Ulster. There needs to be a person in charge of recruitment full-time.
Nearly every club in England and France has a full-time recruitment specialist on the staff identifying players from all over the world. They’re not just going getting seasoned internationals. They’re unearthing players to develop.
French clubs are going to the Pacific islands organising tournaments to find players. Northampton have Dusty Hare, the former England international, working full time on recruitment. He went to America a few years back and found Manu Samoa who has been a revelation in the Premiership.
I know it’s not comparing like with like because French and English clubs can bring in as many foreigners as they like whereas Munster are restricted both by finance and the IRFU regulations.
But the wider point is that they’re putting far more into finding players than Munster are.
Munster are always able to ring up guys like John Langford or Jason Holland or Jean De Villiers to ask about this player or that player. But that’s not good enough anymore. There has to be a more structured, organised way of finding guys in other countries.
The reality now is that European rugby is at a different level. There is more money, the competition has increased. But Munster have to find a way to compete.
Short-term, there needs to be one or two marquee signings. They have to get a couple of world class players in for next season. It’s essential, not just from a playing point of view but from a mentality point of view. They need to change the atmosphere and give their supporters something to hold on to.
Top-class players join a club for two reasons – salary and the prospect of trophies. Munster need to be able to offer both. When we signed Dougie Howlett, it told everyone in the province that we were only interested in the best. It laid down a marker. I know it’s harder for Munster to do that now, especially since they’ve gone so long without a trophy. But sport is absolutely ruthless and Munster have to be ruthless to compete.
They have no chance of winning a Champions Cup the way things are now. They are too far off the pace. Yes, it was a tough draw with three of last year’s semi-finalists in the pool but Munster have come through tough draws before. Making excuses won’t get anyone very far. There has to be action.
The longer they go without success, the harder it will get. The Pro-12 becomes crucial to their season now. It’s almost a must-win. They have to show that they are capable of winning a trophy again. Once they do that, they will become more attractive to potential signings.
This isn’t a matter of panicking. The sky didn’t suddenly fall in because Munster lost three matches in a row in Europe and didn’t make the knockout stages. But we can’t kid ourselves. The gap is widening by the year to the big French and English clubs and these are worrying times.