Munster Rugby – Empire Lost?

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The Munster 2015-16 season is well underway and certain media outlets are highlighting the low attendances in Thomond Park seen this season. What is the reason for the attendance dip? Hawkeye Sidekick tries to find out and it is not as easy as you may think.

Underwhelming European Cup Start

The start of the European Champions Cup, a time when the province of Munster (management, players and supporters) should be energized for elite rugby action. This is the typical fare but the visitors to Munster were Italian outfit Treviso who let us face it are the whipping boys of the pool. The appeal of the fixture and the inclement weather in the Midwest throughout last Saturday were decisive factors for certain Munster supporters to stay at home. 17,763 apparently turned out to watch the match but you would wonder about the attendance considering the number of empty seats seen in televised coverage. Underwhelming all round. Leicester and Stade France games will garner more interest in the province in the months to come but given the circumstances, the attendance was expected.

Shambolic Pro 12 Scheduling

Guinness Pro 12 organizers must be apportioned blame for scheduling two of Munster’s Thomond Park marquee fixtures (Glasgow and Ulster) during the middle of the World Cup at the ludicrous Friday 6pm time slot.  If anyone who is familiar about traffic in Limerick, Friday evening rush hour is an arduous task which requires patience to navigate from one side of town to another. Forget about it if the weather is anyway inclement. If people in Limerick were struggling to get to the game in this backdrop, what could fans based in the other Munster counties do? The Ulster attendance of 13,000 was nowhere near that and Munster should have made an example of poor scheduling to the Guinness Pro 12 tournament organizers with a strong statement but no words came from HQ.

Munster Identity Crisis

There is an underwhelming feeling now when you see Munster play at Thomond Park. The players are giving their all to the cause but the style of play is unclear. Is Munster a team which holds the traditional virtues of pack play to create a platform or is the team focused on a dynamic, pace back line game plan. Tony McGahan, Rob Penney and now Axel Foley have tinkered with Munster game plan in the last six seasons and the result is a mix mash of forward and back line play with no general continuity to each. The increased financial influence of England and France to lure top players have meant Munster’s players pool is diminished but the supporters are increasingly getting confused on what the game plan is for Munster. A team with no clear identity means that the Munster supporter base starting to question the direction of the team and the club who have focused on redevelopment of training and ground facilities to the loss of quality on the pitch.

Fair Weather Supporters

Every team has them. Munster Rugby nights at Thomond Park were must go events several seasons ago. The miracle games against Gloucester, Sale added to the mystique of the ground but as the team has struggled on the pitch, these supporters have left. Sporting economic reality, winning teams attract the curious supporter who follows until a dip in form. Leinster’s attendances this season at the RDS for instance have being distinctly lower this season after a poor end to last season. Attendance numbers are cyclical in nature. Thomond Park, RDS, Ravenhill and Sportsgrounds will always have their solid die hard fan base. The added supporter base from this demographic is good for the coffers but cannot be relied upon in terms of long term financial sustainability.

Managerial Squad Cuts

Axel Foley is a marmite character within Munster rugby circles. To some, Axel Foley is the embodiment of past Munster glories. His no nonsense management was like when he played as a physically imposing number eight. People love it or they don’t. Foley has divided opinion and the departure of the promising young homegrown players such as JJ Hanrahan and Paddy Butler last season further sparked speculation on Foley’s relationship with players. The excel spreadsheet fiasco on the eve of last season’s kickoff was an embarrassing PR disaster for Foley and backroom staff and raised collective credibility issues before a competitive restart was kicked in anger.

Hanrahan’s decision to move away from Munster to Northampton has sparked most debate as the Currow native is a natural football player whose game management is a joy to watch, his kicking ability with ball in hand is exceptional. There were rumors of discontent between Foley and Hanrahan last season on game time at number ten pivotal to the player’s departure. Keatley was given the jersey and try as Hanrahan tried with brief cameos did not get near the position despite Keatley enduring some inconsistent outings. The dye was cast.

With Munster’s diminished financial revenues, the team cannot afford to lose players of this ilk. Foley enters a critical second season; under performance like last season at key points in the season and Munster will need to act. Poor rugby product on the pitch means supporters are looking for alternative matches to attend (i.e. Gleeson League, AIL, Munster Junior). The match day experience is underwhelming, the die hard fans have to create their own entertainment (banter) on the terraces these days such is the bland fare on display.

Disenchantment between Pro and Amateur Game

The gap between professional and amateur game continues to widen in Ireland. Munster are no different in this respect. Munster used AIL clubs to their advantage at the beginning of the professional era; imploring AIL clubs to sell their corporate match event tickets for top prices to aid the professional dream. What did the Munster AIL teams get in return? Not a whole pile. lack of funding to the grassroots to develop grounds and youth academies. There has being a disenchantment between the two rugby modes. With increased ticket prices to visit Thomond Park on game day, local rugby where that be AIL, Gleeson League, Munster Junior League are viable alternatives to get ones rugby fix.  Local rugby, the lure of supporting teams which are at the heart of the community you live in, players who you know from school or colleges, social scene to meet up with friends for half the price of a trip to Thomond Park during and after the game. Munster and that word identity has being lost in recent years for wins. It has to change, otherwise the attendance woes seen this season will continue.