Local hero Anthony Foley ready to make Munster more consistent

Home coaching ticket wants to make the province more direct

Munster rarely do dull, but this season may be more interesting than usual. Not only has Anthony Foley been promoted to head coach, he has assembled an indigenous ticket around him, and they will be sharply scrutinised from the off. Foley and co will be afforded plenty of goodwill, but woe betide them if it goes wrong for, like many, we can perhaps be a bit harsher on our own.

In addition to Foley, Brian Walsh has become the attacking/backs coach, with Ian Costello the new defence coach, Jerry Flannery the new scrum coach and Mick O'Driscoll a technical advisor, while Niall O'Donovan, like Foley a one-time Shannon number eight, remains as team manager.

With the latter as assistant coach to Declan Kidney, history has shown us that Munster have flourished before under an indigenous coaching ticket in response to southern hemisphere regimes, leading to Heineken Cup finals in 2000 and 2002, before Kidney returned to guide Munster to their triumphs of 2006 and ' 08. Granted, Tony McGahan was a key factor in the latter success as defence coach, but after four years under him and two more under Rob Penney, Munster have again opted to buy Irish.

Foley has cut his coaching teeth for those six seasons, the latter three as forwards coach. McGahan oversaw a huge transition after the break-up – compounded by career ending injuries – of what can now be considered Munster’s golden generation. They even managed a league title in 2011, and while there were signs of real progress under Penney last season, Munster remained maddeningly inconsistent.


‘Old adages’

“We’re looking to maintain a lot of the things that we were good at last year,” said Foley at the Guinness Pro12 launch on Wednesday. “We want to remain stingy in defence and we want a forward pack that is generating winners’ ball. I know they are all old adages but it’s a game of possession and the biggest bully keeps the ball and how you use it after that is down to your half-backs.”

“I think every coach has a way that they want to play the game,” he added to Newstalk that night. “In order to have that possession you need a dominant forward pack, you need good half-backs that control the game and when the ball goes to your backline they need to understand the best use of the ball, and whether that’s to run or kick. I know it’s a very vague way of saying it but that’s what it is. It’s all about people having a good understanding of the game, where the game needs to be played, and it’s all based on control of the ball and use of the ball.”

Critically, and this could be Walsh speaking or, indeed, Penney, is that players are trusted to be the decision makers. “We don’t want to be telling them what to do because then it’s not their game,” said Foley. “It’s not them playing, it’s us playing the game for them. We need to encourage them and direct them in the right manner and hopefully they buy into that and we get better outcomes.”

Potent mauling

Last season, invariably when Paul O’Connell was playing and Munster added some direct carrying and potent mauling to the wide, Canterbury-style game favoured by Penney, Munster could be very, very good – witness the 47-23 quarter-final win over a Toulouse side spooked by Thomond Park.

Yet when they were bad, they could be awful – culminating in Munster three times running over the touchline in the last 10 minutes of their Pro12 semi-final in Glasgow, which seemed a poignant postscript to the Penney/Simon Mannix era.

Asked if Munster could be too elaborate and lateral in the last two seasons, Foley said: “You’re talking about players having to make decisions in match pressure, with opposition pressure on you, your own pressure to perform . . . ”

“It’s not about getting very tight or whatever. It’s not about narrowing your game. It’s actually about widening your game if anything and it’s about bringing in other aspects: Where’s the gain line? Where’s the next time I can get go-forward ball? Where’s the next time we can turn them? Where’s the next time we can break them and score? It’s about just understanding and managing that. That’s why we talk about use of the ball and being effective. Sometimes the most effective thing you can do is just take it and get good go-forward ball.

“Rob had his way of playing and at times it didn’t engage that gain line, and at times it became very lateral. Some days that worked, some days it didn’t; against the better teams it didn’t work. Look, there are times to do that. It’s not all the time. So it’s about just understanding the game, understanding the situation and making the best use of it.”

New-look midfield


James Downey


Casey Laulala

moving on, Munster will also have a new-look midfield.

Denis Hurley


Cian Bohane


Ivan Dineen

are options at 12, as well as the 24-year-old


and Crusaders inside centre cum outhalf,

Tyler Bleyendaal

, who arrives in November, while the 29-year-old ex-Brumbies outside centre

Andrew Smith

is an option at 13 along with

Keith Earls


As Michael Cheika's Waratahs showed in winning their first Super Rugby title, playing two outhalves at 10 and 12 is in vogue. Akin to Leinster last season when Ian Madigan was sprung from the bench as a second playmaker outside Jimmy Gopperth, similarly Munster also injected more tempo into their wide game when JJ Hanrahan was introduced at 10 and Ian Keatley shifted to 12.

“I like the idea of playing two 10s,” admitted Foley. “It kind of gives you a certain focus. If you know that the opposition team only have one playmaker then you can obviously set up and put a lot of pressure on him. But if you can alleviate that pressure by having multiple playmakers on the pitch then that gives you more potency in attack . . . We’re just looking to change up a few things and making sure that we have a good balance to our game.”

"At times when we put Keats to 12 as well last year it looked okay. We've Johnny Holland, and Tyler will predominantly be a 12 for us, but we have four fellas who can play ten. So we also need to facilitate getting them all on the pitch and at the best time for Munster."

Last season marked a significant improvement in Munster’s league and European form despite a repeat semi-final exit. But, almost typically, a week after Munster thrashed Toulouse they lost to Glasgow at Thomond Park – a result which effectively cost them a home semi-final.

In between, they compounded their Heineken Cup semi-final loss in Toulon by losing to a second string Ulster, again at Thomond Park. The previous season Munster shipped 50 points in Glasgow a week before their Heineken Cup quarter-final win in Harlequins, whereupon they promptly lost at home to Leinster and away to the Dragons.


And therein lies the rub, for whether it’s the high of a big European win or a hangover from a defeat, the ramifications appear especially damaging for Munster’s league form.

Foley acknowledges that Munster’s form on their league run-in has been costly, and asked if European matters usually proved too distracting, he said: “You go down through it [the season’s schedule] and people will start booking their holidays for Clermont. People only have a certain amount of disposable cash in this current day so they can’t go to every game.

“It is important that we look after our supporters and that when we turn up in Thomond Park or Musgrave Park that we put out a side that plays to the best of its ability. That has always been the case but we probably need to emphasis it a bit more.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times