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Munster need to rebuild put on hold with trophy in sight

By Michael Sadlier

This week's comments aired by Munster coach Rob Penney over Connacht's supposed advantage when it comes to signing foreign imports tells us as much about the southern province's current state of mind as it does about a departing coach looking to start a spat with his neighbours.

Penney had thrown his observation out there after not only watching Connacht snatch Chiefs centre Bundee Aki west of the Shannon – a player Munster apparently had in their sights – but then witnessing the surprising signing of All Black Mils Muliaina, who is also heading to the Galway Sportsground next season.

The Munster coach, who is about to leave for Japan, hit a familiar refrain over the restrictions imposed on the three leading Irish provinces on overseas players and the fact that Connacht – as a weaker squad – are not obligated to abide by these rules.

This situation, argued Penney (pictured), assures Connacht of an easier ride in the transfer market which, in turn, means it is all supposedly detrimental to Irish rugby's overall development.

It was the sound of a frustrated coach firing off a few rounds before departing the stage but his comments, nevertheless, mirrored the situation now awaiting internally promoted new coach Anthony Foley.

The fact is that this Munster team is in much need of renewal and, well, could really do with a few high quality overseas signings. Leaving aside their struggles to keep up with Leinster, last month's Heineken Cup semi-final defeat at Toulon showed us that Munster's doggedness just won't do against a club which can wield so much financial muscle.

They came close to causing an upset – and unlike Leinster this was their second successive European last four appearance – but there was a very real sense that, for all Paul O'Connell's never say die attitude, this Munster squad is in need of fundamental reform, both in signings and off-field finance if the playing field is ever likely to get close to being levelled.

The post-Ronan O'Gara Munster are a different animal and searching for proper direction. They really require some cutting edge to go alongside Simon Zebo's running skills and the occasional flash of pace from Keith Earls, but Brumbies centre Andrew Smith, who joins next season, is hardly the answer here with his ultra-physicality.

Securing number eight Robin Copeland from Cardiff Blues is, in fairness, a useful looking addition but, as Foley will know only too well, Munster need more cash and a freer hand on the transfer market to help develop a game-breaking backline.

There may, at least, be some brightness on the horizon as the IRFU have made noises that the provinces may have to go out there and seek some private investment to remain competitive and, indeed, it would appear that Thomond Park could be rebranded in the image of a big name sponsor.

For the moment, though, their oft-predicted decline still looks manageable and, after all, here they are in with a shout of silverware. And so, Penney has made 10 changes from the hotch-potch side which annihilated Edinburgh last week as third-placed Munster go chasing a seemingly unlikely home semi-final.

O'Connell is there as usual while Dave Kilcoyne and Damien Varley are restored to the front row and the abrasive Sean Dougall comes in for Tommy O'Donnell.

Interestingly, Munster's player of the year Conor Murray and Earls are both ready to be sprung from the bench while Zebo is moved back to the wing. Indeed, with Ian Keatley back at out-half and Casey Laulala and James Downey returning in midfield, this Munster side looks as if it means business.

It's time for them to channel the hurt of Toulon in the direction of some reward. Their need to rebuild can wait a bit longer while there's a trophy up for grabs.

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