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How Jack Crowley is becoming everything Munster need him to be

So far this season 24-year-old has shown such consistency and durability that Munster fans have stopped pining for Ronan O’Gara

Jack Crowley has shown he can be counted on to perform in the big moments for Munster. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Rewind to the start. Keith Earls gathers the ball six metres from the corner flag with three Leinster players in his face, holding possession that has fallen into negative equity. Munster players are scattered in the last ditch; two points down in the URC semi-final, four minutes left: dead and alive.

In the corner of the screen Jack Crowley is the nearest Munster player to Earls and with an outstretched arm he’s urging him to pass. Kicking the ball away may have been the last thing on Earls’s mind, but Crowley wasn’t wondering, he was directing.

For the next two minutes Crowley served his game in small portions, like a tasting menu: made a pass, cleared out a ruck, carried from inside his own half – lining up a tackler 20 metres away and skittling him. “Ooooohhhh” said one of the co-commentators on URC TV. “Another enormous collision,” said Ryle Nugent, translating.

After one kick and 19 passes Munster entered the Leinster 22. “They’ll try to get the penalty rather than put it on Crowley, surely, to drop a goal under these circumstances,” said Nugent.

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Crowley was already poised, his body language pleading for the ball. Pass; swoosh: boom.

Crowley turned to run back and for a few strides he raised his right hand and wagged his index finger, just as Ronan O’Gara was known to do. It can’t have been conscious or planned. The symbolism might have been an accident.

By then it had been 10 years since O’Gara had last worn the jersey and in that time there had been a line of Munster 10s, none of whom was O’Gara’s successor. The search was over.

“The talk of [replacing] Rog is actually gone,” says Jonny Holland, the Cork Con coach and former Munster outhalf. “That’s probably the best compliment you can give to Jack. You now have a young fella who has put on the Irish jersey and owned it. He’s won silverware with Munster [last season’s URC title] and nobody is mentioning Rog. It’s like the gap has finally closed.”

DUBLIN, IRELAND - FEBRUARY 24: Jack Crowley of Ireland is tackled by Aaron Wainwright of Wales during the Guinness Six Nations 2024 match between Ireland and Wales at the Aviva Stadium on February 24, 2024 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

In the 13 months between the last URC semi-final and the one Munster will play on Saturday Crowley’s career has been borne on a whirlwind. He entered the World Cup warm-ups last August as Ireland’s third-choice outhalf and started the Six Nations as the man anointed to fill Johnny Sexton’s jersey.

Munster carried three frontline outhalves last season, which meant that Crowley sometimes turned up at 12 and occasionally at 15. But by the start of this season Ben Healy had decamped to Scotland and Joey Carberry had been reclassified at Munster. The burden was no longer shared. Crowley needed to be everything people thought he could be.

“When you look at his trajectory over the last year and what he’s done,” says Mike Prendergast, the Munster attack coach, “he doesn’t look too fazed, sure he doesn’t?”

As a condition of his promotion, though, there was stuff Crowley needed to prove. In the lead-up to the World Cup, when he was jostling with Ross Byrne to be Sexton’s understudy, the perception was that Crowley had more upside as a playmaker but that Byrne’s goal-kicking was superior. Ireland couldn’t carry a 10 that didn’t nail his kicks.

“The single biggest area of improvement is his goal-kicking,” says Brian Hickey, the director of rugby at Cork Con and Crowley’s first coach when he joined the club. “He has worked incredibly diligently at it. He was always a very good striker of the ball but I would have said there was probably a bit of inconsistency.

“He has got a fair of criticism there. In the past, it might have been correct. But he’s not missing as many of those sitters – or what you’d probably think were, relatively speaking, easy kicks – as he used to. He has developed consistency.”

In last season’s URC Crowley’s success rate with the boot was 68 per cent, which was miles off elite level. From a larger sample size this season his success rate has climbed to 82 per cent.

From another angle, Opta have a metric for “points gained” from goal-kicking. It captures a kicker’s performance with attempts at goal outside the range of expected success. This season, Crowley leads those statistics, the only Irish kicker in the top five.

BKT United Rugby Championship Quarter-Final, Thomond Park, Limerick 7/6/2024 Munster vs Ospreys Munster's Jack Crowley comes up against Dewi Lake of Ospreys Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ben Brady

For kickers, digging in the dirt never stops. “A week after the Australia game [Crowley’s first Test start in 2022] we were training and Jack asked could he come over and kick with us,” says Holland. “He’d have been over in Con in preseason, when Munster weren’t back yet and he wasn’t supposed to be back, asking could he kick around a few balls. I know he was supposed to come down and do a lunch thing in Con and he didn’t because he was kicking.

“There’s a huge commitment to his extras. He’s absolutely obsessed with the game, there’s no two ways about it.”

For years Crowley struggled for game time. During the pandemic, when the seasons were fractured, he fell through the cracks. Crowley is the same age as Marcus Smith, the England outhalf, and two years ago Cian Fahey drew a fascinating comparison on the Off The Ball website: by 22 years of age Smith had made 113 appearances for Harlequins and Crowley had made fewer than 10 for Munster.

Last season Crowley played more than 1,000 minutes for Munster for the first time; before half-time on Saturday he will have reached 2,000 minutes for this season, between club and country. Of Ireland’s World Cup squad only Tadhg Beirne has spent more time on the pitch; Caelan Doris is third with more than 1,800 minutes.

For the players named in the training squad for the World Cup the first block of preseason training commenced on June 18th, 363 days ago. Crowley’s durability has been extraordinary. Munster weren’t in a position to moderate his game time; they needed him.

“He’s played a lot of rugby this year, we’re very aware of that,” says Prendergast, “so we try to manage him during the week. He’s resilient – mentally and physically. He has that toughness. He’s got a bit of everything. In terms of his physical game he can mix it. As a 12, he had no problem carrying over the gainline. It’s not ideal to have your 10 running at walls, as we call them, but he has that threat on the gainline.

“He’s young. The game will flow for him a lot of the time but sometimes it won’t. He’s very accepting when he makes a mistake. The way we play, the ball goes through the 10’s hands an awful lot. He has a lot of responsibility in our framework, in how we play. He likes that responsibility. Pressure doesn’t seem to faze him too much, which is incredible at his age.”

Over the last year his game has gone through a growth spurt. On the opening night of the Six Nations in Marseilles he fell down and got up. He missed a simple kick and then landed the next six. Ireland outsourced some housekeeping responsibilities, but they still needed him to behave like a Test-match 10. When he returned to Munster in March those expectations followed him.

BKT United Rugby Championship, Thomond Park, Co. Limerick 1/6/2024 Munster vs Ulster Munster’s Jack Crowley Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

“Because he’s had so much game time this season he’s lived a lot, if that makes sense,” says Prendergast. “He’s been in pressure moments. He has lived the moments. When he came back [after the Six Nations] there was that extra sharpness. You could see it straight away. His thought process was a bit sharper. You can see it.”

In Munster’s last eight matches Crowley has played every minute. Last Friday night, in the URC quarter-final against Ospreys, the conditions were horrible, the opposition was awkward and Crowley did what the Munster 10 is expected to do: kicked his penalties, managed territory and took the pain out of winning. That sounds simple in a sentence.

“Jack comes across as a confident lad,” says Holland. “I don’t mean this as an insult to him, but everyone who is good at their craft has a lot of thoughts. People will think he must be confident, borderline cocky. He’s not. I don’t think he thinks he’s the best. He plays well because he prepares so well. The confidence is born through his preparation.

“In Jack’s position there’s a massive amount of expectation. He’s filling the jersey. His growth has been phenomenal.”

The longest year is not over yet. Maybe the load was weightless.