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Mood is glum in the wake of the Leinster defeat

(Keith gives fans thumbs up in Thomond Park)

I WALKED into town last Sunday with the bulk of the red army after their side’s disappointing performance against the ‘ould enemy’. The mood was glum and the journey from Thomond Park to the city centre not helped by the burden of defeat.
The general consensus is that the southern province is not producing sufficient quality players through the academy, the clubs and the schools to maintain the high expectations that have been built up since 1999/2000. The argument that the loss of Paul O’Connell and Felix Jones as well as the string of injuries to key players are the main causes for this dramatic change in fortune no longer cuts the mustard with many genuine Munster fans. To successfully compete at this high level of rugby, where physicality is the name of the game, you have to be prepared for all eventualities. You cannot just ‘hope for the best’ and when you face into a season where there is not adequate cover for key areas of the playing field, trouble is already knocking on your door.
Take a quick rewind to Munster’s European successes of 2006 and 2008. Thirteen of the side that started against Biarritz in the Heineken Cup final of 2006 had come through the ranks of Munster club rugby: Anthony Horgan, John Kelly, Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer, Donnacha O’Callaghan, Denis Leamy, Ian Dowling, Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Paul O’Connell, Anthony Foley and David Wallace. Of the three replacements that day, two more came through the club ranks, Mick O’Driscoll and Alan.Quinlan.
In the win of 2008 against Toulouse, 12 of the starters came similarly through the club ranks, Denis Hurley at full-back and Tomas O’Leary at scrum-half joining Dowling, O’Gara, O’Leary, Horan, Flannery, Hayes, O’Callaghan, O’Connell, Quinlan, Leamy and Wallace from the 2006 victory. Tony Buckley and Mick O’Driscoll carried the club colours as replacements.
The lesson learned from these two fantastic victories is that there is no quick fix when it comes to building a successful rugby team.. All the fore-mentioned players soldiered long and hard for many seasons with their clubs before they got the opportunity to combine their efforts in the cause of the red jersey of Munster. Having a common bond proved to be the key and that is where the problem is at present.
The ‘buy-in’ stars of 2006 and 2008 were high quality: Shaun Payne was consistently magnificent at full-back and his fellow South African, centre Trevor Halstead certainly one of the best imports since John Langford in season 1999/2000. For the 2008 triumph, Munster had splashed the cash with the shrewd signings of Dougie Howlett, Riu Tipoki and Lifefi Mafi. Head coach, Declan Kidney had identified the weaknesses of his side and filled them with quality.
In any top sport now, money dictates but it is not always a guarantee of success. It is going to take Munster at least two seasons for the current crop of players to reach anything close to the achievements of those who have handed on the legacy. The last five defeats on the trot, and the two tough away fixtures beckoning, provide a difficult situation for Anthony Foley and his coaching staff. This week-end he faces another big challenge and before he could even get his head around plans for the visit to Ulster on Saturday, he was handed an injury list that was far from encouraging.
Munster have got out of tight corners in the past but the priority now is to stay in a high position in the Pro 12 and stop the rot with a win in Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Victory there would be a major boost. Defeat would make the visit to Paris the following week-end a lot more daunting. Robin Copeland and Dave O’Callaghan signed two year contracts with Munster today, which is encouraging, while Rory Scannell was rewarded for his performances by being promoted from the Academy to a development contract and a possible full contract in 2017/18.

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