Gerry Thornley: Munster travails do not bode well for national side

The IRFU are not without blame for province’s plight which is detrimental to everyone

According to the IRFU's High Performance Director, David Nucifora, the Irish provinces are not under-performing. In his pre-Christmas briefing at the Aviva Stadium, he maintained: "Let's look at the margins that they're losing these games by. No one's being blown off the park." Well, that is open to interpretation but right now it's a very small mercy.

The back-to-back losses suffered by Leinster and Munster against Toulon and Leicester in December were "a loss of form" which could be attributed to "fine margins", and Nucifora confidently maintained: "We've got the players there to be able to still win European competitions. I have no doubt about that."

Never before have the two one-time European big-hitters been evicted from the European Champions Cup with two full rounds of pool games before. Not even in the mid-90s did that ever happen. Between them, they have one win in eight – at home to Treviso.

Leinster were worst hit by the World Cup hangover, and had the toughest draw but have regrouped to top the league. They still have the best squad in Ireland. Their conveyor belt of talent from the schools game and academy is still churning. They are a richer capital city club and had private backing to retain leading lights and develop their facilities in UCD.


Little or none of this applies to Munster. Hence, whatever about Leinster, in light of Saturday’s demoralising 27-7 defeat to Stade Francais, one imagines the supporters of Munster would beg to differ with Nucifora and the IRFU.

Huge void

First and foremost, the playing squad is not as good as the relatively golden years of 2000 to 2008. On Saturday’s evidence, nowhere near it. The departure of Paul O’Connell has left a huge void in leadership, which has been compounded by Peter O’Mahony being sidelined.

The work ethic of a stable pack, and outside of Peter Stringer and then Tomás O'Leary, a world-class, goal-kicking outhalf, were the foundations for Munster consistently being contenders in Europe. Indeed, those back-to-back semi-finals under Rob Penney do not look too shabby now. But the first was achieved with both O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara, the second with O'Connell.

Their tight five, and pack, are nothing of the 2006 and 2008 vintage, and they've as big a problem at 10. Ian Keatley steered them to the semis two seasons ago, but the poor fellow's confidence has become so brittle this season that each missed kick has increasingly undermined the team's confidence as well, which fell apart in the second-half on Saturday.

The loss of JJ Hanrahan haunts Munster and Anthony Foley. With a bit more love, time on the pitch and a quicker appreciation of his financial worth, he'd have stayed. This has been compounded by the neck injury which Tyler Bleyendaal suffered and Keatley's loss of form, but has typified mismanagement on and off the pitch. Now they could be about to lose another shining light in Simon Zebo.

You hear good noises out of the Munster camp about the coaching ticket, who could not be accused of not caring or working tirelessly to get it. But clearly the buck stops with Foley and the coaches.

The Munster Branch also stand indicted for their failure to ensure a long-term succession strategy, for short-term player fixes, for the failure to maximise the brand in the good days, for province’s financial deficiencies, their failure to keep pace with the underage structure in the other provinces and the decline of their clubs. Okay, in this socio-economic factors and the IRFU have played a significant part.

The union, having taken the plaudits for the good days, also stand indicted for presiding over Munster's decline. They have also largely ignored the club game, compounding this by placing restrictions on player availability and invested instead in the provincial A sides. And this was always going to hurt Munster more than Leinster and Ulster, with their greater focus on the schools game.

According to Foley, Munster’s better working relationship with the schools’ game (where facilities and standards are behind their more monied counterparts in Leinster) is beginning to reap dividends. But that will take years to yield a dividend. In the interim, the IRFU should be doing everything in their power to help Munster.

Whether it was the financial terms or Stephen Moore's desire to continue playing for the Wallabies, the union should not have blocked that move. Niall Scannell would have learned from Moore, and so what if Moore retained international commitments à la Ruan Pienaar?

It would have ensured game time for Mike Sherry and Scannell, and most of all a World Cup final captain with more than 100 Tests would have provided leadership and a hard edge in the tight five, attributes lost with O'Connell. For starters, maybe that costly seven-pointer off a lost defensive lineout at home to Leicester might never have happened.

Losing to 14 men can happen. On the verge of their pomp, Munster did it against Leinster in the inaugural Celtic League final of 2001. The red card galvanised Stade and unhinged Munster. The loss of BJ Botha, Tommy O'Donnell and Andrew Conway merely exposed a shallow bench. But it was the degree to which Munster were unhinged that was alarming.

Basket case

This week will show us what their core fan base is and will reveal the response of the players. But Munster are Irish rugby’s biggest basket case. Have been for years. Saturday merely crystallised this.

And the ripple effects will go further. It was hard-edged Munster dogs of war who backboned the golden years. Conceivably, the Ireland pack which takes the pitch in the Six Nations will not feature one Munster forward. Whatever about the short term, in the long term you cannot have a strong Ireland without a strong Munster.