Battle for starting Munster outhalf spot has national implications

Erasmus: ‘We know who is our number one 10 and we will go with him next week’

Munster’s JJ Hanrahan is tackled by Johnny Sexton at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Munster’s JJ Hanrahan is tackled by Johnny Sexton at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Joe Schmidt already knows who he wants as Johnny Sexton’s understudy when South Africa come to Dublin on November 11th. If the system is in-sync that man should play 10 for Munster in Castres next Sunday.

With Paddy Jackson’s career on hold, the alternatives are Joey Carbery, JJ Hanrahan and Tyler Bleyendaal. Therein lies the problem. It’s a middle weekend in October and that trio started anywhere but outhalf during this modern version of the old interpro. This primer for Europe. This useful splashing of red and blue across a green canvass.

Schmidt and his deputies were captivated observers perched in the Aviva’s middle deck.

Remember when Hanrahan was the chosen one? It seemed so obvious when he danced Munster to victory in Perpignan. That was December 2013.

It made no sense why Hanrahan was allowed join Northampton or that he was playing second fiddle to Ian Keatley before such matters came to a head.

Two largely invisible years have passed and he’s home but Keatley’s decent form ensured that conundrum remained in place come kick-off on Saturday at the Aviva Stadium. Just 45 minutes later Hanrahan was shifted to outhalf as Rory Scannell replaced the uninjured Keatley just as Sexton made it 17-7.

“At the moment I’ve promised myself that I’m just not going to get caught up in trying to say ‘I’m this’ or ‘I’m that’ or whatever,” Hanrahan said with understandably diplomatic tones last week.

But the uncapped 25-year-old is an outhalf. He can do damage from fullback, he’s clever enough to spark at inside centre, but above all else the man is a natural born play-maker, a game manager. A number 10.

Further evidence is needed over the next fortnight before Schmidt reveals the early shape of his 2019 World Cup squad. Waiting behind Sexton is a serious role as Test matches, more often than not, end for him well before 80 minutes is clocked (23 minutes into this game Sexton needed his usual double-fist squeezing medical attention when a heavy collision with Chris Farrell was quickly followed by John Ryan mauling out of a ruck).

Carbery’s excellence in these early weeks overshadows his last start at 10 for Ireland (a calamitous summer display in New Jersey). He can never again be overlooked.

Selecting combinations

Maybe Erasmus has not changed his mind at all and Bleyendaal, who did guide Munster to a Champions Cup semi-and Pro12 final in 2017, will start against Castres.

“We must stop playing around now and settle into selecting combinations,” said the outgoing Munster director of rugby. “We have seen who can do what and now we must pick our best side on form for next week.

“But yes, it is nice to have three proper tens.”

Sensing his mind was made up, we asked Erasmus to go all NFL coach on us and name his starting quarterback for the season.

“We are not going to let Castres know that now. We are pretty sure who we want there. We had to try out Tyler at 12 because we lost Dan Goggin and we have got Sam Arnold still there, we can play Earlsey at 13 but the problem was 12 [Jaco Taute is gone for months]. So we tried Tyler.

“We know Rory [Scannell] is the number one 12. We chanced our arm a little today and in some regard it worked. We know who is our number one 10 and we will go with him next week.”

That Hanrahan kicked the goals indicates he will be that man with Scannell a certainty at 12 and Farrell increasingly looking the part at 13. Bleyendaal and Keatley could both be on the bench at Stade Pierre Fabre.

Or Erasmus will tell us, via selection, that Hanrahan is not ready. All answers will be revealed in the coming days. Whoever the starting outhalf will be – Bleyendaal, Hanrahan or even Keatley – he becomes the leading candidate to start against Fiji on November 18th.

Because every decision links up to Ireland now. That’s how rugby thrives on the island, or simply survives. That someone as calculated as Erasmus is “chancing his arm” to figure out his pecking order below the starting XV shows the South African has adapted to life within the Irish ecosystem.

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