All the best rugby teams are striving for the same things. An identity. A tight-knit culture. An environment in which words, eventually, are superfluous. Where what really matters is not individual ability but the unbreakable bond of togetherness. And where, after a while, winning becomes so natural it feels almost preordained.
Until, that is, the magic dries up. Star players retire or get injured, coaches come and go, supporters grow restless. Worse still, the arch rivals up the road are flying. History, all of a sudden, counts for little. Which is roughly where Munster, once the European Cup’s ultimate feelgood story and guardians of what used to be the continent’s most fabled culture, currently find themselves.
Ahead of their two-legged Champions Cup last-16 collision with Exeter Chiefs, the mind spools back to the great Paul O’Connell’s description of the Munster dressing-room in his aptly-titled autobiography, The Battle. “It was like having the craic in the pub with eight pints on board, except you’re stone cold sober. If a guy broke up with his girlfriend and was really cut up about it, we’d play ‘It’ll be Lonely this Christmas’ at full volume in the gym. When Marcus Horan found out he had a heart condition … we decided he needed to hear Feargal Sharkey singing ‘A good heart these days is hard to find.’”
And so on. Towards the end of O’Connell’s playing career, the running “joke” was that he was visiting a local hospice each day after training to familiarise himself with the place. Brutal did not begin to cover it, which was one of the reasons why Munster were so relentlessly tough in adversity on the field.
And now? The “Brave and the Faithful” who followed their local heroes everywhere in the halcyon days are having their faith severely tested. It is more than a decade since the men in red last won any silverware, since when Leinster have accelerated away over the horizon as Ireland’s most irresistible force.
Last weekend, in the keynote fixture of their United Rugby Championship campaign, Munster’s blue-shirted nemesis cruised down to Limerick with some big name starters missing and still won 34-19. There were empty seats at Thomond Park, not all of which could be blamed on Covid-19 or the late kick-off. Injuries are also stacking up, with key men such as Peter O’Mahony, Tadhg Beirne, Joey Carbery, Dave Kilcoyne and Gavin Coombes all unavailable to play this weekend. Worst of all, there is still a vacuum where the clear-sighted plan for next season – and beyond – should be.
Munster’s South African head coach Johann van Graan is off to Bath at the end of the season, as is his defence coach JP Ferreira. The club’s senior coach, the ex-Wallaby fly-half Stephen Larkham, is also departing along with the Springbok World Cup winner Damian de Allende. Even the ever-loyal O’Mahony pointedly observed this week that the delay in naming Van Graan’s replacement was “not ideal” from a playing perspective. The popular Graham Rowntree, currently coaching the forwards, has applied for the role but nothing is yet confirmed.
For those who live and breathe Munster it is all increasingly frustrating. “There’s a lot of discontent here with the way the province is being run,” says Donal Lenihan, the highly respected ex-Munster and Ireland captain who is now serving as president of Cork Constitution. Lenihan even uses the word “delusional” in relation to the current organisation.
“It drives me bananas,” he tells the Guardian, urging Munster’s senior officials to get real and make significant structural changes if they wish to move forward. “Munster think they’re Leinster, that’s their biggest bloody problem. I chuckle a bit when we travel to France and England. It’s like Manchester United in many ways. They’re seen as being these giants but they’re not.”
There are also distant echoes of Bath and Leicester, two English sides who have spent the past decade chasing former glories. Even the now-resurgent Tigers finally had to accept that their time-honoured methods needed updating. Munster’s issues, though, are arguably more deep-seated. Big lads in Limerick, who would have gravitated to rugby 10-15 years ago, are now choosing hurling instead and the province is struggling to compete with the population advantages, private school nurseries and well-organised feeder systems that Leinster are now harnessing.
In Lenihan’s opinion – “They’re in a different class off the field as well as on it and that’s coming home to roost” – there is no point in denying the existence of a gulf. Munster, he believes, need to front up to the challenge, install a more long-term focused director of rugby and re-engage more proactively with their local clubs. Embracing a more upbeat playing style would also help. Another former Munster legend, Keith Wood, recently dismissed their limited gameplan as “turgid nonsense” and some Cork-based fans are opting against making the three-hour round trip to Limerick.
It is hardly an endorsement of the tactical and selectorial instincts of Van Graan, who took over from Rassie Erasmus in 2017. “I think the thing that’s annoying people most in Munster is that they’ve got a decent squad of players,” says Lenihan. “From a coaching perspective they should be getting more out of what they have. We’re not going to win the Heineken Cup this year and we won’t win the URC either. They should be investing in the younger lads.”
With so much angst swirling around, it does not feel entirely coincidental that Ronan O’Gara and Jerry Flannery, two upwardly-mobile coaches reared in Munster’s unforgiving crucible, have conspicuously chosen to stay put at La Rochelle and Harlequins respectively. There is also a financial aspect to consider. With the rebuilt Thomond Park and the pandemic having already emptied Munster’s coffers, lobbing huge sums at the world’s best coaches is no longer part of the equation.
If the right catalyst can be identified, Lenihan still believes a rousing revival is possible. “I think the culture is still there but it’s dormant. It won’t take much to reignite it.” Maybe, but finishing second over two legs to opponents who have endured a mixed Premiership season would scarcely dilute the sense of a proud province treading water. It makes the next two Saturdays significant on several fronts. Stand Up And Fight? If ever there was a moment to resurrect some of that old Munster magic it is now.