Rise of Munster's No 9s could finally provide answer to Ireland's scrum-half anomaly
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Published 13/05/2011 | 05:00
Munster's scrum-half issue comes down to a simple mathematical equation: four into nine won't go.
Four quality players, one No 9 jersey -- it is not a bad position for Munster coach Tony McGahan to be in and an unusual one for Irish rugby.
As has been pointed out many times, for some reason, Ireland does not produce quality scrum-halves in the quantity of the other major rugby nations. The best way to prove this is to indulge the age-old rugby pastime of picking your all-time XV.
Try this one: Tom Kiernan; Tony O'Reilly, Brian O'Driscoll, Mike Gibson, Denis Hickie; Jack Kyle, AN Other; Nick Popplewell, Keith Wood, Sean Lynch; Willie John McBride, Paul O'Connell; John O'Driscoll, Fergus Slattery, Jamie Heaslip.
In every position bar scrum-half, a name pops up immediately with several others jostling for attention -- and they are Lions one and all.
The No 9 jersey causes the greatest amount of brow-furrowing, with most selectors opting for Colin Patterson, the gifted Instonians player who won a mere 11 caps before his career was cut short by injury.
It is instructive to note that Patterson and John Robbie were the last Irish No 9s to tour with the Lions -- all of 31 years ago on the 1980 trip to South Africa (although Tomas O'Leary was selected in 2009 only to be kept off the plane by injury).
Peter Stringer is Patterson's closest challenger on the all-time XV, but, despite winning 98 caps and playing central roles in four Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam, the Corkman has never made it into a Lions touring squad.
We don't do Lions scrum-halves, or at least haven't since long before the game went professional and it remains something of an anomaly given the amount of Lions No 9s produced by England, Scotland and Wales over the same period. However, at provincial level, Munster have struck a rich vein of talent over the last 10 years.
As well as Stringer and O'Leary there is Eoin Reddan, who plays for Leinster but hails from Limerick, and Connacht's Frank Murphy, once of Crosshaven, CBC Cork and UCC.
Munster may have had to rely on overseas recruits (with mixed results) in midfield in recent times, but McGahan is spoiled for choice when it comes to homegrown talent at No 9, with Conor Murray and Duncan Williams two quality players to go with the more experienced international duo of Stringer and O'Leary.
It is an encouraging development and one that precludes the need to look abroad, as Munster have done in the past with the likes of Dominic Malone and Toby Morland.
Stringer and O'Leary's qualities are well established, although they have had their individual challenges recently in terms of game-time, while Williams' ability was never in doubt; rather the question of his durability following a desperate run of injuries has been the issue.
Then there is Murray, the real surprise package this season, whose contribution was recognised last week with the Munster Academy Player Of the Year award and whose performances will be rewarded with a senior contract.
Most regularly likened to Wales scrum-half Mike Phillips due to his six foot-plus stature, shock of black hair and style of play, it sets you wondering how far the Garryowen man can go, given Phillips' quality performances on the Lions tour to South Africa two years ago. His size gives Murray a physical presence around the fringes, perhaps not quite as physical as O'Leary, but imposing nonetheless.
His delivery may not be in the same league as Stringer in terms of speed and accuracy (few are), but it is well up there and, in terms of box-kicking and general footballing ability, he has the effectiveness of Williams at his best.
There are those, such as former Welsh great Brynmor Williams (another Lion), who believe that tall scrum-halves are not suited to the modern game.
"If a 16-and-a-half stone, 6ft 3in scrum-half was in vogue in the modern game I'm sure New Zealand, South Africa and Australia would have one by now," said Williams.
"But they haven't, they've got much smaller versions who are quicker and can move in tight spaces in the face of some very well-organised defences."
However, a much more relevant opinion is that of Ronan O'Gara, who has been playing outside Murray and has been impressed by his skill and maturity levels, and is grateful for the fact that he is Munster born and reared.
"He's from Limerick. They obviously love their rugby in Limerick, and that's a huge thing," said O'Gara last month.
"We need young fellas like that coming through. He's been very impressive. People ask me my opinion of him and it feels like he's been playing there for years. That's a big compliment to the guy. I'm not watching his game, I'm letting him do what he wants to do.
"He's very modest and hard-working, and that's a trait that will stand to him, because he has a long hard road in front of him. But it could be a huge role."
It is far too soon to be talking of World Cups or Lions tours for a player who has so recently forced his way into the team, but it has been a case of so far, so good for Murray and he has provided McGahan with a welcome home-grown headache ahead of tomorrow's Magners League semi-final showdown with the Ospreys.
Looking down the road, it will be hard to keep Munster's scrum-halves happy in the eternal quest for game-time, but the flip-side is the inevitable raising of standards and the fact that all contenders are Irish qualified.
That could be good news for Irish rugby and its scrum-half anomaly.