Stepping up to Munster's No 8 plate
Openside Wallace favourite to get nod for key role
QUIZ question -- which Munster player picked up two man-of-the-match awards during last season's Heineken Cup while playing out of position?
Paul Warwick would be a pretty good guess after the Australian, a natural out-half, excelled at full-back for Munster in both games against Sale and away to Montauban and was the star man in the quarter-final humiliation of the Ospreys.
However, the answer is David Wallace -- the 33-year-old who has won 56 caps for Ireland and three for the Lions at openside flanker but slotted in brilliantly at No 8 for his province when Denis Leamy was unavailable.
Jamie Heaslip's emergence as a No 8 of the highest quality meant Wallace was not needed there for Ireland last season (although he did play No 8 off the bench against Canada, bringing his Ireland tally to 57).
However, before Heaslip's stunning form on the Lions tour last summer made the Leinsterman's selection a formality, Wallace was a genuine contender for the No 8 slot on the Test side to take on the Springboks.
Now, with Leamy not expected to be available until Ireland's southern hemisphere tour next June, the issue of who should play No 8 for Munster is a live one again.
Leamy's injury is particularly unfortunate as, after a couple of disjointed, injury-disrupted seasons, the Cashel man was back to his bristling best in Munster's momentous Heineken Cup victory in Perpignan.
Nick Williams, a specialist No 8, was brought over from Auckland for just such an eventuality. Munster's first-choice back-row of Alan Quinlan at No 6, Wallace at No 7 and Leamy at No 8 was set in stone, but they wanted experienced back-row cover should anything befall the top three and Williams, a regular for the Blues in the Super 14, fitted the bill -- whatever one felt about the effect his signing had on the progression of indigenous back-row talent in the province.
But Williams' time with Munster has been dominated by injury and related fitness problems, which were compounded by the latest medial ligament blow which will sideline him for up to six weeks.
So, with Williams out of the running, are there other contenders for Leamy's berth should coach Tony McGahan wish to keep Wallace in the openside slot where he will undoubtedly start for Ireland in the Six Nations next month?
James Coughlan is most definitely an option. The talented 29-year-old has had to contend with bit-part roles behind the established back-rowers over the past number of seasons, the most memorable coming against the All Blacks in November 2008 when Coughlan, Billy Holland and openside Niall Ronan were immense on an unforgettable night in Thomond Park.
Like Williams, Coughlan is a specialist No 8 and combines overt physicality with superb pace and athleticism -- as his regular appearances for the Ireland Sevens team would testify. Last Saturday, Coughlan was forced to deal with a Munster scrum that was moon-walking back on top of him as the Ulster props Tom Court and BJ Botha mullered their opposite numbers.
In those circumstances, he emerged with great credit and put himself about around the park to good effect, unleashing one 30m dash that set up the position for Munster to score their sole try through Jean de Villiers.
After Wallace and Coughlan, the options are less clear-cut.
Alan Quinlan and Donnacha Ryan have been mentioned but, although both Tipperary men have the ability to do an effective job, their experience of the position is extremely limited. Though he has fared very well in his outings in the back-row, Ryan's long-term future is in the second-row, where he could well provide World Cup cover for Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell next year.
Holland has experience of No 8 but has played the majority of his rugby at second-row or blindside and would thus be behind Coughlan.
Peter O'Mahony, the former Ireland U-20 captain, is an exciting prospect but he only made his Magners League debut in Ravenhill and is too raw to be seriously considered as an option at this stage.
Ronan's mobility and link play make him an extremely effective attacking weapon from openside, particularly when the Munster front five are on top, as they should expect to be in Treviso and at home to Northampton in their final pool game.
With fellow flanker Tommy O'Donnell also coming along nicely this season, Munster's strength in depth in the back row is extremely encouraging for McGahan.
So, assuming the dead leg Ronan picked up last Saturday does not prove too serious, the Quinlan, Ronan and Wallace triumvirate looks the most likely when Munster resume their Heineken Cup duties on Saturday week.
However, should the decision be taken to keep Wallace in the No7 jersey, the most viable option is Coughlan -- either way, although Leamy's injury is far from ideal, Munster should be well served at No 8 when European action gets back under way.