For the first time in 13 years, Munster have failed to qualify for the knock-out stages of the European Cup and people in Limerick are saying all kinds of things about the game. I spoke to somebody this morning, a person heavily involved in rugby, who couldn’t think of a single good thing to say about the Munster performance.
It’s hard to play against top-class opposition when your back row is missing, I ventured.
Yeah, he agreed. And your front row. And your second row.
Was it really that bad? I certainly thought so. They squeezed four penalties out of us from the scrum in the first half hour. We had no forward momentum at all for virtually the entire match, and the scoreline didn’t reflect the fact that Toulon were in complete control. Wallace’s try came only after they had relaxed, with the game wrapped up.
There was little comfort to take from the performance.
No. Scratch that. There was nothing at all to take from it. Nobody performed well. Howlett was bustled over the line time after time, but at least he was working hard and nearly scored a try except for an unlucky toe in touch. The flat ball he received throughout the day didn’t give him much scope to create anything.
Nobody broke the line, a tribute to the Toulon defence, and Donncha O Callaghan’s yellow card from a stupid illegal tackle on an uninvolved man cost us 13 points. On the other hand, I thought O Gara’s binning was a dreadful decision by the referee. He was no more guilty than anyone else, and had been the victim of gouging before the fight broke out. That disrupted Munster’s already scrappy game, but it’s not an excuse.
Toulon were better than us. Wilkinson was superb. So were Contepomi, Sackey, Van Niekerk, Mignoni and Bruno. What am I talking about? They were all on top form, unlike our fellas who looked tired and dispirited.
It looks like time for a change. Certainly it looks like time for new coaching staff, and yet we hear that McGahan has been awarded an extension to his contract. While I wouldn’t like to get into the witch-hunting that characterises soccer management in Britain, it seems a strange decision to extend the manager’s contract before he delivers what he’s paid for: qualification for the final stages.
At the same time, Paul Warwick is leaving, because Munster can’t afford to pay what he’s worth and there’s no doubt that Warwick is one of the best. A first-class all-rounder, he’ll be missed, but Munster need the money to buy a first-rate prop and with a budget of €3.5 million, they can’t afford the luxury of a new front-row and Paul Warwick, no matter how good he might happen to be.
Apart from the coaching team, what of renewal on the field? I’d like to think this is a transitional squad, but I don’t see the younger guys coming forward to replace the likes of Hayes, O Gara, Quinlan, O Connell, Wallace or Horan. Are we at the point where money will define the shape of the new Munster, with bought-in talent outnumbering local players? Up to now, Munster has welcomed immigrants like Howlett, Warwick, Williams, Langford, Pucciarello, Tipoki and Mafi. These guys all bought into the party and were adopted as locals, but will the support be the same if the entire team is Australian, Kiwi, South African, Argentinean and Tongan?
This is a defining moment for Club Munster. Not only is the team losing on the field, but Munster Inc is losing the sympathy of long-established supporters. Already we hear the rumblings of dissent among the fan-base, who believe the whole thing has become too much of a business and not enough of a tradition.
The pensioners who saw their terrace tickets double and then quadruple in price are starting to ask why they should remain loyal to a corporate entity that seems to care little for them.
When the Munster fans start to feel alienated and ignored, you know it’s time for deep and painful reflection, made all the more painful by the unfortunate behaviour of the Toulon supporters who tore up sheets of newspaper and threw them in the air, shouting Garbage! and Merde! It’s a dirty tradition I was unaware of until somebody explained it to me after the match.
Well and good. Keep doing that and we’ll keep showing respect when your players take their kicks. But it would be a very long road indeed that had no turning.
Meanwhile, Leinster look effective, organised, incisive and unstoppable. I think they’ll win the cup and I’ll probably lay a small wager to that effect.