Tony Ward: New faces but same psyche gives Munster hope of being genuine European force again
Published 13/12/2011 | 05:00
All the usual cliches were doing the rounds in the aftermath of Munster's latest Heineken Cup win on the road. It was "workmanlike", "professional", "controlled", "patient" and so on.
Yes, it was all of those, but there was something else, something much more substantial to this performance than of late.
Even Munster's most trenchant critics must acknowledge that any team would struggle to overcome the losses of Felix Jones, Dougie Howlett and Keith Earls -- the entire first-choice back-three, with respect to Denis Hurley, Johne Murphy and Simon Zebo, who all contributed massively to Saturday's win.
The stand-ins have done so well that Tony McGahan will have the type of problem any coach would relish in attempting to squeeze Jones and Earls back in -- although there may be some room for manoeuvre, as I feel Earls could play alongside Lifeimi Mafi in midfield.
While Zebo may be the new kid on the block, he is an attack-minded player growing in confidence, a wing with the natural game and instinctive go-forward ability to establish himself as a regular.
Certainly, with Howlett out for the foreseeable future, at least one wing position is up for grabs, and Saturday's back-three are all in the mix.
Mafi is one of the first names on McGahan's team-sheet, alongside Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara. He can be indisciplined, but he has that spark of invention and is not afraid to lead.
However, what made Munster a genuine European force was their forward power, and forwards coach Anthony Foley is developing a new pack in his image. From Wian du Preez to James Coughlan, Munster now have a well-orchestrated pack as hard and as talented as any to represent the province.
Look at the forward replacements on Saturday -- Marcus Horan, John Hayes, Donncha O'Callaghan and Denis Leamy. There is not a better bench to see out a game anywhere in Europe, Toulouse included.
If Ian Keatley can continue to develop in the Munster way, then from No 1 to No 10, the Reds are well set to be genuine Heineken Cup contenders for years to come.
I am not into hyperbole, but what I saw on Saturday was a changing of the guard.
For sure, this is a Munster side in transition but Du Preez, Damien Varley (hugely under-rated and outstanding again at Parc y Scarlets), BJ Botha, Donnacha Ryan (now coming into his own as a specialist lock), Peter O'Mahony, Niall Ronan and Coughlan are now fully justifiable selections in their own right.
And collectively they make as formidable a unit as any to represent the province since the days of Peter Clohessy, Mick Galwey, Keith Wood, Alan Quinlan, Foley et al, surrounding a young O'Connell.
Bear in mind too the possibility of Jerry Flannery and David Wallace returning before their top-level days are done.
And the hooking resources beyond Varley and Flannery include Denis Fogarty, Mike Sherry, Duncan Casey and James Rael -- all quality, mobile front-rows.
I am not suggesting for a minute that what we witnessed on Saturday is the finished article -- in particular, Munster need to fill the midfield void alongside Mafi if they are to rattle the top guns, although they will hope that one from Danny Barnes, Will Chambers or Earls can step up to the mark.
However, the performance in Wales was a watershed in terms of mapping the change and laying down a marker. The transition is happening at a much faster rate than any would have expected -- and Munster are rightly fourth favourites to win the Heineken Cup this season.
All told, it was a good weekend for Irish sides in Europe. Ulster, inspired yet again by the on-fire Stephen Ferris, got the winning bonus point they needed against Aironi with a clinical and professional performance.
If they can repeat the dose in the rematch in Italy on Saturday, then Leicester at Ravenhill in January will look very winnable, meaning their season would hinge on the final pool match in Clermont.
For Connacht, the frustration continues. They gave it their all against Gloucester but came up agonisingly short. Earning a losing bonus point was an achievement, given the huge disparity in set-piece possession throughout.
There is no quick-fix to arresting their nine-match losing sequence, but the spirit was clearly there, epitomised yet again by John Muldoon and Mike McCarthy.
Unfortunately, after the return trip to Gloucester, three of their next four games are Munster in Limerick, Leinster in Galway and Toulouse away. No one said life in the fast lane was going to be easy.
Leinster should have won much more comfortably in Bath on Sunday -- they were guilty of butchering three clear try-scoring opportunities.
Sean O'Brien has shipped much of the flak for his second-half failure to put the most simple three-on-one overlap away. That rush of blood made it a nervy final quarter, but O'Brien was exceptional in almost everything else he did and was a very close second to Man of the Match Jonny Sexton in game-turning impact.
The watching Declan Kidney must be positively salivating, given the form of O'Brien and Ferris. And please can we finally put to bed this nonsense about O'Brien not being a free-running openside? Just ask any of the Bath pack about what it takes to tie down the brilliant and ultra-honest Leinster flanker.
And bet your bottom euro that O'Brien's blunder will never be repeated -- especially not in Saturday's return clash with Bath at the Aviva. Great players learn from their mistakes -- and great is certainly what O'Brien is, as demonstrated in his tour de force at The Rec on Sunday.