Liam Toland: The maximisation of indigenous resources key if Irish provinces are to succeed
Taking on the money boys of Toulon is not an option for the IRFU
Casey Laulala in action against Toulon: “Casey Laulala is a case in point where the accuracy he consistently displayed fell below standard.”
What is success? Is it winning trophies or developing indigenous talent or both? This time next year Toulon will be stronger, faster, more powerful and better versed at negotiating their way to the final than this year, which raises a crucial question for the Irish provinces. Facing the same opposition (but improved) in April 2015 what changes are required from Munster or indeed the other provinces? What do we need to do to move ahead? If all three provinces replayed their last European games tomorrow, how would the result differ?
In answering this question there is clearly no point in moaning over home verses away draws or referee interpretations; what if they reoccur next year and again the year after? All three Irish provinces have proven one thing this season. The talent base, quality of coaching and European experience is currently more than sufficient to gain access to the play-offs; beyond is the challenge.
Munster did some very clever things last Sunday such as place CJ Stander out in midfield for Ian Keatley’s magnificent restarts. Knowing your opposition is crucial here and clearly Munster had a plan to expose Toulon’s lumbering exit strategy through Juan Smith in midfield. It worked and worked very well because these Toulon errors afforded Munster a foothold and placed doubt in the minds of Toulon.
This clever approach continued, with managing referee Wayne Barnes’s scrum interpretation. I felt Dave Kilcoyne’s feet were too far back to support the monster Carl Hayman’s frame and made him vulnerable to Barnes. But after the first couple, Kilcoyne cleverly reversed the trend gaining two free kicks and a couple of penalties.
Munster’s deficiencies are most obvious when playing lesser sides in the Rabo. When intensity and aggression were pumped into the Heineken Cup system, they often papered over the cracks. But crucially when precision was required to negotiate a surprisingly vulnerable Toulon especially after Keatley’s cracking touchline conversion it lay absent.
Casey Laulala is a case in point where the accuracy he consistently displayed fell below standard. In Marseille he lobbed balls, air balls, behind the shoulder balls and in one phenomenal opportunity to hammer Toulon’s exit strategy he decided to run at a two v one with Keith Earls waiting on a clean run. Toulon had just gone 12-6 up, with those extra three points coming from a Jonny Wilkinson drop goal; Munster having dropped his previous restart. Moments later Wilkinson exiting another Keatley restart fired a Garryowen landing just outside his own 22.
On 31:30 Laulala reacted brilliantly in gathering the bouncing ball right on Toulon’s 22, 15 metres from the right touchline. At this point Toulon had 14 players aimlessly in the open field with only one left to defend 15 metres. Laulala carried, made contact and then fired a sloppy pass to Earls’ left shoulder with the ball bobbling into touch. That Earls calmly accepted the standard is testament to his temperament but in that sloppy moment Munster allowed a certain seven points slip (12-13).
Munster targeted Armitage for their kick-offs for a reason; to expose Toulon’s exit strategy. Foley’s considerable depth of rugby knowledge will I hope unlock many more opportunities for Earls and Simon Zebo but he’ll need improved talent inside them with the ability to carry out his tactical wishes.
Toulon have a power game that’s extremely hard to match but they also have a level of ability and precision that created ample opportunities for scores. Toulon’s defensive lineout maul was equally impressive. The role of any coach is to create opportunities; it is then up to the players to convert same. Toulon attacked from their half for a reason; cross the gain line, cross the gainline, cross the gainline and then power around the fringes into space having honey-potted Munster players. But they had many variations to this theme. The diagonal wiper line from Bryan Habana taking an inside ball from Armitage was one such move that opened Munster.
The galling aspect for all three provinces is the sense of unfulfilled opportunity. Jared Payne was sent off, and rightly so, Leinster were humbled and Munster were beaten by an extremely vulnerable Toulon. Munster’s ability was unable to expose Toulon’s vulnerability.
If they were to play the game tomorrow, assuming normal injury rates, Munster would still need players to really enhance their prospects of beating Toulon. Assuming a massive lift from the Anthony Foley factor they will still face an improved Toulon next year meaning that Munster et al need more quality play-off players.
The solutions? Create more money or merge resources. The IRFU are in a tight balancing act between dependence and independence and will always fall short of matching the big boys. Inviting moneyed men into the mix to attract quality foreign players would dilute IRFU independence and provincial brand. Hence the maximisation of indigenous resources is key.
Too many players are slipping out of the net for want of a plan. Hence one option is to merge the academies into two geographic areas, with the IRFU new Performance Director, David Nucifora, managing the fate of young players in feeding the teams that need them the most. Failing that, the IRFU can simply merge the four provinces into two! What price success? firstname.lastname@example.org