THERE was a time when Munster – on and off the park – were European rugby’s brand leaders.
Twice champions of Europe within a three-year period between 2006 and 2008, their second string even took New Zealand to the brink.
From one to ten, their players practically filled the Irish team. They weren’t just Irish rugby’s best side; they were Irish sport’s. And now? These days they are an embarrassment.
Their scrum goes backwards, their attack goes sideways, their passes go anywhere, their kicker can’t kick, their players can’t catch. Out of Europe after four rounds, they are in disarray.
“Borderline disgraceful,” said Alan Quinlan, their former player, afterwards. “Where was the heart and desire?” And where was Simon Zebo when Hugo Bonneval ran down his channel in the last 10 minutes? Physically he may have been on the pitch, but mentally it seems he is already at another club.
Humiliated on Saturday against Stade Francais – a team fighting relegation in the Top 14 – you wonder if they’ve even reached the bottom. This, after all, was their sixth defeat out of seven.
Never before have Munster lost three European games in a row. Never before have they ever been this bad and serious questions now have to be asked about Anthony Foley, their inexperienced coach, who is sticking it out for now – but for much longer?
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A proud as well as a tough man – will Foley want his name associated with a side that were outscored 17-7 in the second-half when they had a man advantage, following Nigel Owens’ decision to send Josaia Raisuqe off?
And will Munster want him? While the easy call to make is for Foley’s head, and while clearly he has to ship some flak, in rugby, the buck doesn’t always stop with the coach. Like any sport, and any business, a degree of planning is required.
And in this regard, Munster have been found wanting. Once they were packing out Thomond Park. Once their jersey was the second biggest seller in world rugby. Once they could persuade, and pay, for Doug Howlett to set up camp in Limerick.
Once, they had a succession plan. Mick Galwey would retire but Paul O’Connell would already be there to replace him. Keith Wood would go but Frankie Sheahan would prove a more than adequate replacement. Then when Sheahan’s time was up, Jerry Flannery’s was starting.
But that was then. Now, they have been caught on the hop. Their championship winning team all grew old together. None of the 2008 winning side were around on Saturday. Nor was their spirit.
Nearly half of Saturday’s team were either rejects from Leinster or bad signings from overseas. That isn’t the coach’s fault? That issue stems from the recruitment centre.
Serious questions also have to be asked about their academy structure. Is it as good as Ulster or Leinster’s? Can it be, given the superior numbers of rugby playing schools those provinces have?
Perhaps time has caught up on them – and they’re now exposed to a harsh reality – that they were lucky to have been around to see a golden generation give them the journey of their lives for a decade and more. Now, though, gold has turned to copper. The good days are gone. The question is will they ever come back.