Gerry Thornley: Munster not in state of flux it appears from outside

Province’s imminent choice of No 1 outhalf of key interest to Ireland coach Joe Schmidt

Ian Keatley in action against Munster.  The outhalf has  improved his  goal-kicking (70 per cent) and found his confidence thus far this season. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho .

Ian Keatley in action against Munster. The outhalf has improved his goal-kicking (70 per cent) and found his confidence thus far this season. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho .

 

On Saturday, November 18th, 2007, Munster hosted Clermont Auvergne in the second round of the pool stages of the then Heineken Cup at lunchtime. Some Leinster fans had congregated in Trevor Brennan’s bar De Danu to watch the Munster match ahead of their own team’s game that night in Toulouse.

Toward the end of events in Thomond Park, with Munster about to complete a commanding 36-13 win, the Sky Sports co-commentator, Reggie Corrigan no less, was asked to name his Man of the Match. He chose, eh, the Clermont try-scoring debutant in midfield, Marius Joubert.

“That’s right Reggie,” ventured one Leinster fan in De Danu. “Give them nothing.”

It’s doubtful that Peter O’Mahony, then 18, was watching Sky’s coverage that day, or then again maybe he was. Either way, when the current Munster captain looked the former Leinster captain in the eye as Corrigan raised the question of Munster’s intensity last Saturday, O’Mahony was having none of it, no matter how Corrigan tried to dress it up.

As had been the case since those days and beyond, the latest instalment of the Leinster-Munster rivalry was an intense and physical as ever, and it’s clear that the edge between the two provincial rivals remains intact.

Munster would go on to lift the trophy that season for a second time when beating Toulouse in the final. They haven’t been in the final since, although last season they did reach the semi-finals for the fifth time in the intervening nine years.

The nature of that semi-final beating by Saracens in April, along with the Pro12 final defeat to the Scarlets, has prompted Munster to develop more attacking strings to their bow.

There was evidence of this in the manner in which they scored three tries to Leinster’s two despite having far less possession until the final quarter of the game – more offloads, more strike moves out wide and the sharpened cutting edge provided by Keith Earls.

But for Chris Farrell’s pass being adjudged forward, or Joey Carbery’s brilliant tackle to prevent the Munster winger breaking free, Earls would have equalled his entire tally of three tries for Munster last season.   

Granted, one of their three tries came from a turnover, and another through a piece of brilliance from Tommy O’Donnell off a loose tap down. But when they did manufacture a clever blindside move in the last five minutes and used the full width of the pitch as well as a deft pivot by Chris Farrell and nice hands by JJ Hanrahan and Andrew Conway, the resultant try by Earls was a beauty.

In that instance, Hanrahan’s ball playing skills and abilities to hold his depth, as well as take the ball to the gain line, appeared to make a compelling case for choosing him as the outhalf for this evolving game. Yet going into Europe, after six rounds of the Guinness Pro14, we still don’t know the identity of Munster’s first-choice No 10.

First-choice

This rather adds to the impression of Munster being in a state of flux; what with an evolving game and a director of rugby who will be leaving in mid-season, most probably at the end of December, to be replaced by the Springboks assistant coach Johan van Graan. Highly regarded and hard-working, if inexperienced as a head coach, van Graan’s arrival, to initially work alongside Erasmus in order to ensure as smooth a transition as possible, should be confirmed imminently.

Admittedly, the sense of flux probably appears greater from the outside than is actually the case with Munster’s UL base, but certainly nailing down the first-choice outhalf would seem rather imperative. Erasmus says he and his coaching staff know their man, and given Hanrahan has yet to start a game there since his prodigal return, the signs are that he has still yet to convince that he can control a game from 10.

Tyler Bleyendaal was the undoubted first-choice last season, but his form has suffered with his goal-kicking (40 per cent this season) whereas Ian Keatley (70 per cent) has found his range and his confidence.

Whoever Erasmus opts for has implications for Ireland.

Time was, not so long ago, when Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson (who started six of Ireland’s 12 Tests last season) and then Joey Carbery were all vying for the role as understudy to Johnny Sexton.

But Madigan has departed, Jackson’s season is on hold and Carbery, after an undistinguished outing at outhalf against the USA last June, has played exclusively at 15 this season.

Were Munster to choose Keatley, he would be in pole position to cover Sexton against South Africa and Argentina, and perhaps start against Fiji. Keatley last started a Test against Italy in the 2015 Six Nations, when Ireland last won the tournament.

But were they to choose Bleyendaal, who is not eligible for Ireland under the residency ruling until the Six Nations, it would mean two of the four provinces staring non-Irish qualified outhalves.

Similarly, none of the five players who featured at 15 for Ireland last season started there over the weekend. Rob Kearney is sidelined, Jared Payne has yet to play this season, Tiernan O’Halloran departed early on Friday night with what seemed like a hamstring injury and Simon Zebo has been limited to three appearances off the bench. Granted, he should return this weekend, which might in turn see Andrew Conway, who started the second Test in Japan at 15, shifted to the wing.

By contrast, the once problematic scrumhalf cupboard is overflowing. While Conor Murray remains the best around, Kieran Marmion filled the void impressively against England and like him, Luke McGrath and John Cooney were capped in the summer and are playing regularly.

The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

  

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