Earls injury reduces Mannix's options
SIMON MANNIX, the ex-All Black outhalf now coaching the Munster backs, yesterday lauded the many options which the province now have in the backline and the welcome headaches they provided in advance of Saturday’s Heineken Cup opener against Racing Metro at the Stade de France.
Alas and alack, one of the options has been taken away from the Munster think tank, with confirmation Keith Earls has been sidelined for a few weeks with a groin injury, thereby also jeopardising his chances of playing in Ireland’s November internationals.
Where to accommodate Earls would have been the most welcome and biggest of those headaches, be it at his own preferred position of outside centre or on the wing (where he finished last Saturday against Leinster at the Aviva) or even at fullback.
Felix Jones has recovered from shoulder surgery and “will return to action at some level over the coming weekend”, so having been absent since May he seems an unlikely option this week. Prop Wian du Preez sees a specialist today about the knee injury which has ruled him out this week, while despite training yesterday, Niall Ronan is “unlikely” to be considered.
The likelihood is James Downey and Casey Laulala will renew their partnership from the off for the first time in three outings, as was the case after Ian Keatley came in for Ronan O’Gara in last Saturday’s 30-21 defeat to Leinster.
The competition’s all-time record points scorer, O’Gara made his Heineken Cup debut as a 19-year-old replacement away to Bourgoin 16 seasons ago, but having missed only five of the province’s last 101 ties in the competition through injury since making the place his own on their march to the 2000 final, there is a real debate about who the starting number 10 will be in the Munster jersey going into a Heineken Cup tie.
Indeed, so much so, that former team-mate Keith Wood has described the call between O’Gara and Ian Keatley as “50-50”.
This would not be the first time a front-line Irish international ends up playing catch-up behind a provincial team-mate because of international demands and a comparatively delayed start to the season, O’Gara’s campaign not starting until a late cameo in round three of the Rabo PRO12 away to Ulster when oddly shying away from a last-ditch drop goal attempt.
He started the home win over the Dragons but has been hauled off around the hour mark to be replaced by Ian Keatley in the last two defeats away to the Ospreys and Leinster. Keatley, like many younger, hitherto fringe players on Munster’s books, has been playing with a new found confidence and maturity this season, having scored a brace of tries (one from fullback) in his four starts and his arrival coincided with an improvement in Munster’s play last Saturday, albeit for a variety of reasons.
Undoubtedly this selection is more of an issue under a new coaching regime, but even so you’d have thought O’Gara’s big-game experience – he has a century-plus of both Tests and Heineken Cup games, not to mention nearly 350 games for province and country – might count for something, and that over 1,000 points for his country and nearly 2,500 points for his province would give him some credit in the bank too. What’s more, he has played eight times at a packed Stade de France for his country and for me, he will surely start.