When Alan Hansen uttered the immortal words “you can’t win anythin’ wih’ kids” in the aftermath of Manchester United’s 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa in 1995, he created the ultimate stick for disciples of the church of “If They’re Old Enough, They’re Good Enough” to beat naysayers with for years to come.
Nine times out of ten, Hansen would have been completely correct. It’s just that the one time he was wrong, it was with a team of kids that would go on to win all around them for the next 10 years or so. Unlucky, Alan. But I get you man, I get you.
Modern sporting culture is all about finding the New X. You know the way it goes, every young player that shows any kind of potential is The New incarnation of a great in his position. The New Ronaldo. The new O’Driscoll. The New O’Connell.
And I’m as bad for it as anyone else, actually. To be honest, I think Munster – and Ireland in general, actually -could do better with bringing young lads in. In most positions, I think everyone 21 and over can be thrown in without much fear, with two notable exceptions. Lock and tighthead prop.
The Next Big Thing
This close season, Munster have a decision to make regarding signings and you can tell, right now, that it won’t be popular with the disciples of “If They’re Old Enough, They’re Good Enough”.
In the aftermath of Donnacha Ryan’s soon to be transfer to Racing 92, Munster have a bit of a gap in the second row. When you add in the imminent departures of Dave Foley, Mark Chisholm and others in that position, that gap begins to look a little wider than we’d like.
With the second row becoming more and more important to everything a rugby team wants to do in the modern game, Munster have a choice – trust the kids or sign someone to fill the gap left by Foley and Ryan.
There’s only one option, and that’s to sign someone. Sorry, Church of ITGETOE, it’s the only thing that makes sense.
In a perfect world, none of the provinces would ever have to sign anyone. This rugby utopia would have a never ending supply of elite players just strolling out of the academies and into the first XV. I’d also be three inches taller, with Michael Hooper’s hair, and in possession of a functioning right knee.
We don’t live in this rugby utopia – unfortunately. Munster certainly aren’t in that utopia, and the position that we find ourselves in this summer is a conflation of good luck, bad luck and timing.
In one way, Munster were absolutely blessed to have an iconic lock partnership that lasted for the rugby equivalent of an aeon. O’Connell and O’Callaghan were a Munster partnership, an Ireland partnership, and even a test Lion partnership. It was a gift, and in some ways, a curse.
In the shadow of those titans, Munster never really brought on any young tyro to take their spot. A lot of that was, again, down to bad timing and bad luck. There was high hopes for a number of lads to make a sustained push but it never quite happened for them through injury or form problems. Even then, there was always the safety blanket of O’Connell and O’Callaghan to fall back on. Who wouldn’t call on a duo like that when you’ve got games to win?
Did that reliance – some might say overreliance – play a part in Donnacha Ryan having to wait a little too long to be The Man in the second row? Injuries didn’t help him, but I think that’s a fair enough statement to make. The same could be said of Dave Foley. He looked like the real deal the year he got capped, but injury buckled him in the two years since and he’s never been able to get a solid run of games going.
So now Munster have a quandary
We’ve got one elite prospect in Jean Kleyn. Two experienced blindside/locks in Billy Holland and Dave O’Callaghan. A growing prospect (no pun intended) in Darren O’Shea and then two academy lads who’ll need to be brought through with patience.
For me, that roster could do with an experienced out and out #4 to compliment Kleyn and rotate in and out with Holland for the bigger games. That would keep our size differential in a good place against the elite.
I’ve heard it suggested that the two academy locks – Wycherley and O’Connor – should be fast-tracked into the first team squad rather than signing someone from abroad. That would be a mistake. Fineen Wycherley and Sean O’Connor are two massive prospects (both have test potential) but they need to be nurtured, not thrown into the deep end.
“Let them sink or swim,” I’ve been told by more than a few people when it comes to young players. My answer to that is why make it a binary? Sink or swim ends up in “sink” all too often, when it really doesn’t have to be. Next season should see those lads hitting the gym, getting some test window and early season Pro12 game time, and then looking to push on the season after. Why rush?
There are few positions like it in the modern game. The physical demands are crazy – rucking, carrying, scrummaging, jumping, lifting, mauling – and that’s before you get to the mental properties you need; namely, to be a big, nasty skull cracking fucker. Only extremely rare second rows are the finished product (or close to it) until they hit 24.
Every young player needs game time, but too much game time (or game time with too much pressure) can be as damaging as none at all. It can actively stymie their potential. That goes double for second row forwards.