Munster are not that far away from the very top

Sport, like life, is a wheel that you don’t know you’re on until you get crushed at the bottom.

Actually no, that isn’t quite true. Sport is actually like real life but on ketamine. You’re a loser until you’re a winner until you stop winning and then you’re broken, a has been.

Not only that, but people knew all along that you were a paper champion and now the wheel can turn again.

Professional rugby is no different, it’s just that some people’s wheels are bigger than others.

At some point, even the mighty All Blacks will have their dip and the poor souls who inhabit that black jersey during those months/years will feel the heaviest weight of the wheel. The bigger the rim, the longer the crush – that’s usually how it goes.

Munster Rugby Training, UL, Limerick 13/5/2019 Craig Casey Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

From here, it comes down to where on the wheel Munster are. Leinster are top of the wheel right now, but all it takes is three bad seasons. Same with Saracens.

It’s already happening with Toulon.  In the aftermath of 2009, Munster began to lose the cornerstones of the great team as they aged out or retired – Foley, Hayes, Quinlan, O’Gara, Wallace, O’Callaghan, O’Connell, Horan, Howlett and then Leamy.

Then throw in some bad luck with injury to the identified next generation of guys that either stalled their development at key times or robbed them of time completely.

Tomas O’Leary, Duncan Williams, Ian Nagle, Paddy Butler, Dave Foley, Dave O’Callaghan, Daragh Hurley, Mike Sherry, Duncan Casey,  Denis Hurley, Ronan O’Mahony and so on.

All it takes is three bad years. Much of the criticism that has been levelled at Munster since 2011 has been on our academy conversion rates. It’s a fair enough criticism in some ways, but badly lacking context in others.

Munster’s system is smaller than Leinster’s, in an overall demographic sense nationally and in the bubble of rugby, so it stands to reason that it will produce fewer pro rugby ready young athletes.

Clayton Hotels Munster Schools Junior Cup Final, Irish Independent Park, Cork 27/3/2019 St Munchin’s College vs Rockwell College Rockwell’s Henry Buttimer celebrates with supporters after the game Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Oisin Keniry

The main bone of contention between schools and clubs is regularity of participation. Leinster’s Senior Cup school system has top level facilities in-built into their curriculum.

In some schools, young lads are training close to professional standards from the age of 14 on up and, as it’s in school, they have excellent retention rates.

With fewer schools in Munster (I’d rank four or five who come close to Leinster’s system) we have to rely on the clubs more and that’s where things start to get sticky.

And let’s remember, Academy’s aren’t magical. They can only work with what they have and, with the best will in the world, some lads only have a certain level of rugby in them and some never get to be who they might be because of injury.

Munster’s trophy drought since 2011 mirrors the decline of Toulouse in some ways, and it has been something that has bubbled to the surface again in the last few weeks in the press.

But compared to Toulouse’s decline over the same period, Munster have been flying it.

Magners League Grand Final 28/5/2011 Munster vs Leinster Munster’s Paul O’Connell lifts the trophy Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

One bad season in 2015/2016 aside, Munster have consistently been making finals and semi-finals of both competitions and generating excellent “moments” along the way.

Munster are currently, and have been for the last few years, just behind the likes of Leinster, Saracens and earlier, Toulon.

Other clubs who have been in the same bracket as ourselves have fallen by the wayside, while we have been consistently held that level. Can we push those two levels further? Making finals and then winning them?

Munster aren’t as far away as it might seem, despite the gap seeming cavernous at times.

There is young talent coming through, there is quality in the first team and there will be a consistent head coach for the next three years. There will be other coaching voices added but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

The nature of success can only be judged after the fact. We might look at these last few seasons as vital building blocks towards glory in a year or two or three.

We might look at them as more years on the underside of the wheel too. That’s the thing with the wheel, you don’t realise you’re on the downside until you feel the first pinch.

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