Horgan insists Munster must get their timing right against 'awesome' Scarlets backline
Published 09/12/2011 | 05:00
PACE is a critical aspect to any potent backline and, if you don't have it, you work around it.
From his breakthrough in the late 1990s up until the mid-2000s, Anthony Horgan was top of the sprint test charts at Munster, but played in a backline that was not renowned for searing speed.
Leinster had Denis Hickie and Brian O'Driscoll when he was at his quickest, Ulster had James Topping and Tyrone Howe, but Munster were a team defined by their abrasive forwards and the boot of Ronan O'Gara.
In the backs, they used the likes of Jason Holland, Mike Mullins, John Kelly and Dominic Crotty, none of whom were out-and-out speedsters, but all of whom knew how to put the ball to good use when it came their way -- as they showed against Toulouse in the famous 2000 semi-final in Bordeaux.
Horgan, who won seven caps for Ireland between 2003 and '05, remembers Munster signing a South African pace merchant in '05, but Anton Pitout's time with Munster (he played five matches, including one Heineken Cup encounter against Sale) was not a success.
"I remember the rumour at the time was that it was between ourselves and Toulouse to sign him," recalled Horgan. "He had played Sevens for South Africa, which tells you how quick he was, but he played a few games for us, stayed one season and then he was gone. It's fair to say he wasn't the player we hoped he would be.
"We weren't known for our pace when I was playing -- the likes of Dom Crotty and John Kelly were not speed merchants -- but they were intelligent footballers and had a massive work-rate, and those qualities were essential."
Which brings us neatly to Munster's Heineken Cup clash with the Scarlets in Parc y Scarlets tomorrow, with coach Tony McGahan going into the encounter without his primary back-three strike-running force of Doug Howlett, Keith Earls and Felix Jones, all missing through injury.
That trio represent Munster's pace department, and the importance of velocity to the Munster backline is demonstrated by McGahan's willingness to give Simon Zebo, who has genuine gas, his first Heineken Cup start if he recovers from a knock to his ankle.
Johne Murphy should be on the other wing, with Denis Hurley at full-back. This pair are both good footballers, but not exceptionally quick, similar to Danny Barnes, who is likely to come in to the equation if Zebo is unavailable.
McGahan has highlighted improvements in Munster's forward play this season, but the backline attack, undermined by the injury situation, has been performing in fits and starts, often too lateral to be effective and get behind organised defences.
However, while Horgan concedes that the Scarlets backline, with their Wales World Cup stars of Rhys Priestland, George North, Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams, look the stronger unit on paper, he says Munster still have the capacity to hurt the Welsh out wide.
"Their backline is awesome and you would have to say, on paper, it looks stronger given the Munster injuries," said Horgan.
"You look at those Llanelli players and the impact they had at the World Cup, they were superb. Pace and, more importantly, experience are issues now with the injury situation. Missing Earls, Doug and Felix is massive, they are proven try-scorers. Doug is Munster's main strike-runner and missing him is a huge loss.
"But I think Will Chambers has added a bit: his off-loads have been good, and he is direct, which I think Munster were lacking a bit in the early season.
"Ronan has always played better alongside direct centres -- you think of Trevor Halstead, Rua Tipoki and, to some extent, Sam Tuitupou. (Lifeimi) Mafi can do that well, too, and I think it is very important to have that against the Scarlets.
"Also, Denis Hurley over the last few weeks has run nice lines from full-back and has added to the attack. Your 13 and 15 make a huge difference, and bringing your blindside wingers into midfield -- you need your strike-runners, but also someone who can hit them with a good pass at the right time."
Horgan believes the situation calls for a pragmatic tactical approach based around forward dominance, the boot of O'Gara and judiciously selected backline moves. He does not bring it up himself, but Horgan was centrally involved in an epic 2002 Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Stade Francais in Paris when Munster employed exactly that tactical approach.
Inspired by Anthony Foley, Jim Williams, David Wallace and a young second-row called Paul O'Connell, Munster took on Stade up front, frustrated them through the kicking of O'Gara and then hit them with the decisive try when Horgan cut them open with a timed run off the left wing. It was a classic Munster away-day performance and the perfect template to follow tomorrow.
"In the circumstances of whom they are playing, playing away from home and experience-wise, there is more pressure on Munster shoulders this weekend," said Horgan.
"The Heineken Cup is never the place for a 'caution to the wind' policy. That is not to say that Munster aren't up to an expansive approach, but, tactically, you need to use Ronan, you need to pin them back and make the most of your scoring opportunities."
And a final word on O'Gara, set to make his 100th Heineken Cup appearance tomorrow?
"It's ridiculous how good he has been," said Horgan. "That fella could go on for another two years, no problem."
Without Howlett, Earls and Jones, Munster may be short on out-and-out pace heading to Wales, but if they get their tactics and timing right, McGahan's men are in business.