Gordon D'Arcy: Impressive Andy Farrell can help Munster stop the rot
Arrival of such a big personality will prove of benefit to Munster and coach Anthony Foley
Andy Farrell in action against Ireland at Croke Park in 2007. Ireland won 43-13 on an emotion-fuelled evening. But I still remember how much hassle Farrell was. Photo: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty
It’s the potential solution to a problem that is not as deep-lying as some would have you believe.
Media voices these past few days have questioned Munster’s onfield leadership and advocated a root and branch dissection of their structures off it.
It all makes for easy headlines.
Regardless of how Munster have been managed or mismanaged these past few years, regardless of the decisions that have been made or not made, the most serious issue lies in the present tense.
Their multiple system failures on the pitch are because confidence levels are so clearly drained. I have played with or against most of this Munster team so I can see they are not performing anywhere near their usual standards (CJ Stander being an obvious exception).
This is not because of the Cork and Limerick dual training bases or financial issues over Thomond Park or any of the other off field issues.
A losing streak is nearly always down to plummeting confidence levels. The arrival of a big personality like Farrell should improve the changing room dynamic.
The other can’t be solved today or this week or even next month but a collective lack of confidence can be addressed immediately. Farrell could alter the collective mindset with the slightest suggestion of something new, something very basic, in their preparations.
What I know about him, from the briefest of conversations after marking him in 2007 and from former team-mates talking after the 2013 Lions tour, is that Munster have been gifted an inspirational figure.
Farrell was a ball playing number 12 whose transition to rugby union was delayed by two seasons due to a car crash. Then he had the misfortunate of being in that England side that came to Croke Park. They could have played that match a hundred times over and never got a better result.
Good appreciationAt least we had planned for all 17-plus stone of him. On several occasions I went low and put him down. On each occasion you could hear him balling out the English backrow for allowing Dave Wallace and Denis Leamy get over the ball to force several clean turnovers.
He already had a good appreciation of his adopted sport, his awareness was impressive, he was directing players into position in defence and attack.
[That was my first major visit to Croke Park as I missed the 1996 All-Ireland hurling final because of Liam Griffin. The Wexford hurling manager was my employer back then. I was on duty in the Ferrycarrig hotel when the delirious celebrations spilled over. I was on clean up.
The hurlers arrived in the next day – I was back on after a few hours kip – following the reception in Redmond’s Square. At about 2am Martin Storey noticed the 15-year-old porter was the only sober person left in the county so he gave me a slightly bashed Liam McCarthy and told me to lock it away. I complied.]
Anyway, bar the return of Paul O’Connell, no better motivator is available to Munster right now. I don’t expect miracles but Farrell’s gardening leave from international rugby until June meant an established coach, a Rugby League legend and leader, was to be twiddling his thumbs through the winter and spring months.
This is some really clever business and Anthony Foley deserves a rap on the back for allowing it to happen. It takes a man of genuine humility to admit he needs outside help.
Regardless of who initiated or redirected Farrell to Munster it might be seen as a crucial moment in what is fast becoming a disastrous season.
Farrell, we know, is an expert in defensive alignment of a team but he also has a reputation for filling the players he coaches with confidence.
That is exactly what Munster need right now, and seemingly, more than ever before. Their one win in six up in Belfast was a dogfight that in many respects was down to Ulster errors. Munster kicked away an incomprehensible amount of possession. Their plan was pure pressure and not much else. That clearly isn’t working against most European opponents.
You can see Munster’s lack of confidence, more than anywhere, in the missed tackles leading to tries.
The number of Munster players in good defensive positions falling off the ball carrier has been stark. That demands a return to tackle techniques presumably learned as teenagers.
I sound like a broken record but I’m going to refer to Brad Thorn’s few months with Leinster again. I saw him one day doing a drill after training and paired up with him (you can always improve your technique or remind yourself what it needs to be). Brad preached the need to keep your balance centred as the guy running into you has the obvious advantage of momentum while the tackler must be able to move forward, left or right without losing control.
It’s all about your momentum going into a tackle; where your feet are positioned in relation to your shoulders. If your shoulders are in front of your feet your centre of gravity is leaning forward so you won’t have a strong contact in the tackle. If one foot is directly under your shoulders and you power into the contact then you can control the tackle area.
When people fall off tackles they are generally reaching – their hands are out in front which brings their shoulders over their feet, therefore losing their centre of gravity, so they are tackling without power – which is not really a tackle.
Watch Matt Giteau, even at 33 and just 85 kilograms, for an ideal example of how size is negated by correct technique. Farrell should address this problem immediately.
It’s easy to question a group’s character after a run of defeats like this. But scratch the surface and you will find there is no real doubting their true character. You just have to dig a little deeper to find that when heads are slumped. Farrell can do that.
Malfunctioning unitsWhen a team is full of confidence brilliant moments happen on the field that look to be straight off the training pitch. But lots of times it’s just players having enough belief in each other to make the correct decision in a given moment.
With Munster there are so many malfunctioning units: the scrum, the lineout, the number ten. Confidence is shot.
Now, Farrell is no knight on a white horse. But the next eight fixtures, from re-establishing Thomond Park as a hard place to come to against Stade Francais on Saturday, through the Six Nations should become very interesting viewing.
Farrell’s condensed period of coaching the Lions might also prove beneficial.
The two Champions Cup matches are only about performance because the results are irrelevant (unless they are thrashed).
Now, how do you halt a losing streak? One small step at a time is, in my experience, the only way. You break everything down and repair each malfunctioning area one problem at a time.
Munster need to set new daily goals. Let these develop into an overall weekly plan. Forget about what is gone or what is to come the following week.
Break it down to the next training session which can also be seen as Farrell’s first moment as a Munster coach. That should be enough to motivate every single player. Who can impress the Lions’ defence coach, the man who achieved everything there was to achieve in Rugby League?
Take Leinster. They went back to basics after the Toulon defeats. You could already see the improvements in that first half at home to Toulon which led to a good run over Christmas. Friday’s win in Swansea was five games in the making. They didn’t target the Ospreys, they focused on the challenge before their eyes and it culminated in that win, in that performance.
Munster’s next challenge is a Farrell training session.
The defining period of the Pro 12 tends to be during the Six Nations. Munster now have Farrell and three Italian opponents.
Maybe they are not in a position to even challenge for the Pro12 this season. Maybe they just need to reconfigure their way of playing, maybe they just need players like Jack O’Donoghue and Rory Scannell to get used to being frontline professionals.
But staving the rot is all that matters now. That starts at 1pm on Saturday in Limerick.
A key element in becoming a successful coach is the development of professional working relationships with your players. Basically they have to trust you.
I trusted Leinster’s defence coach Kurt McQuilkin after a few sessions. When his methods worked in a game I was willing to do anything for him. The relationship grows after that to a level of understanding that is hard to explain.
This four-month detour can also prove hugely beneficial for Farrell. He will get to know individuals and see the unique inner workings of Irish rugby from top to bottom.
Yes manWe know he is not a yes man. Obviously Joe Schmidt green-lit his appointment as Ireland defence coach and is willing to embrace the inclusion of an alpha male on his coaching staff (Farrell was 21 when he became a hugely successful captain of Wigan and Great Britain).
England’s World Cup demise remains a stain on his CV but most of the blame for that lies at Stuart Lancaster’s feet. Maybe Lancaster was unable to channel Farrell’s personality and expertise in the correct manner.
Farrell wasn’t the head coach, Lancaster was, but the perception was certainly muddied by the end.
Schmidt won’t ever have that problem with anyone. We know who is at the top of Irish rugby’s food chain. The opinions of a proven leader of men is clearly what Schmidt felt is needed for Ireland to evolve as a rugby nation.
This is a really clever move by the IRFU (presumably an agreement between Joe, David Nucifora and Foley) as it overshadows Munster’s deeper lying problems, for now at least.
On that, Anthony Foley is the only person who really knows if a systematic review of the entire Munster organisation is necessary. He sees what’s happening in contract negotiations, he deals with the CEO, he sees what’s happening at training and in the coaches’ meetings.
Again, that suggestion makes for easy headlines. No club is perfect.
What Foley has done is accept help when it was offered during a period verging on crisis. It becomes a full-blown crisis if any more players leave the province.
An announcement that Conor Murray, Keith Earls, James Cronin and Simon Zebo have been re-signed would be a timely boost for morale. Or at least three of this four. That’s an area for Garrett Fitzgerald and Foley to focus on.
Farrell’s arrival may even help this process; his voice at training can be an immediate benefit to players operating on ever dwindling confidence.
But the main priority for Munster and Foley and Farrell is the same: Stop the rot.
He may prove the catalyst.