The 10th anniversary of Ulster’s tumultuous Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Munster at Thomond Park is coming up this weekend.
Both sides are unlikely to see each other again. Still, many people in the full house will remember the impact that day. It was one of those games where the underdogs got under the radar, tipping their cap on the aura around Thomond Park but immediately rearing up and biting chunks out of anything that moved.
That win gave Ulster their first appearance in a Heineken Cup semi-final since the foggy days of early professionalism when they lifted the trophy in a crowded Lansdowne Road in 1999. More than that, it confirmed their new place in the pecking order as one of the better teams in Europe, let alone Ireland. It was Munster’s third loss in four games, a streak that began with an away defeat to Aironi, a now-defunct Italian franchise.
If you’d told the home side that beating Leinster in last year’s Magners League final was indeed the end of the trophy line, you’d have gotten a cool reply. If you had illustrated it with a scenario where in 2022 two of their three senior coaches had already packed their bags and the third was swaying in the wind, you would have said that something like that just wasn’t going to happen at Munster, a world-renowned rugby brand.
But this is exactly where Münster is parked, while Johann van Graan prepares the squad for the European mission on Saturday in Exeter. Above the line, they can’t buy a win over Leinster; the bottom line, whether it’s arguing with the referees, youth clubs feeling unloved, or women who’ve just been repulsed in their quest for equality, Munster has become the gold standard for ugly looks.
A few days ago, in the Sunday Independent, we alluded to the balance of sporting power in Limerick, where the county’s hurlers and footballers are on track to excel in both disciplines. Just two seasons before Ulster trimmed Munster in the Heineken Cup, the Limerick Hurlers went on strike and the county had to pull a second string in the Munster championship. The footballers at least didn’t withdraw their manpower, but they didn’t shoot out the lights either.
However, based on their current performance and seriousness, the Limerick GAA clan must look to the current crisis at the High Performance Center in UL and wonder if Munster is laughing. From a CEO who has missed countless opportunities to get behind the wheel and keep driving, to a coaching staff with more of them outside than inside.
Yet Munster is managed week in and week out by men determined to leave the team: head coach Van Graan and assistants Stephen Larkham and JP Ferreira. The outsider is Graham Rowntree.
The former prop master runs across the field, wondering if there will ever be the comfort and certainty of another scrum. It’s understood he was interviewed for Van Graan’s vacancy a month ago, but he’s still none the wiser. What seemed like a flurry of initial activity to address IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora’s problem was replaced by a period of stasis.
What does the rown tree look like? He’s expressed interest, put himself at his best, but still doesn’t seem to know if his application is good, bad, or indifferent. Rowntree’s coaching career is packed with experience in high-end rugby, from the Lions down to Test rugby with England and Georgia and club play. He has always been a specialist striker coach and in that capacity is under contract at Munster until 2024, having started after the 2019 World Cup.
He seems to like Limerick and Limerick seems to like him. That’s not to say Van Graan’s successor, if it’s not Rowntree, will think the same way. A while back we suggested here that it would make sense to bring Declan Kidney home from London Irish as Director of Rugby, with a reach below the line into the non-professional side of the house.
To free the kidney from Hazelwood you would have to jump through a couple of hoops. Getting Mike Prendergast out of Paris would also be fraught with obstacles. The longer the process takes, the fewer coaches are available. The deeper you get into the season, the less likely a club is to play ball – why would they?
Yesterday Munster captain Peter O’Mahony did what you’d expect him to do and poked fun at the tourist train heading to an as yet unclear destination. He said players are good at parking things like that, that he has faith in those charged with completing that journey, that “good players” aren’t distracted from what’s really important.
It’s really important. Making good decisions about the people running your business has a direct connection to your bottom line. Giving your supporters the confidence that you know the difference between a powerhouse with connections to every community in the province and a ramshackle outfit that staggers from crisis to crisis — that’s really important.
Munster is married to the IRFU in this case because they were nursed on Lansdowne Road due to their financial problems. That’s a story in itself. What 10 years ago looked like a stunning attack from Ulster, a one-off smash and grab, was in fact a warning sign of a long period of attrition.
https://www.independent.ie/sport/rugby/munster-rugby/munsters-coaching-uncertainty-sums-up-how-far-the-province-has-fallen-41526048.html Brendan Fanning: Munster’s coaching insecurity sums up how far the province has fallen