Wednesday 15 August 2018

Comment: Toulon will test Munster's squad strength to the limit

Comparison to depth of talent in Leinster squad is stark despite Van Graan's calls for optimism

Peter O’Mahony, Dave Kilcoyne, Simon Zebo, CJ Stander, Conor Murray, and Mike Sherry in training at UL yesterday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Peter O’Mahony, Dave Kilcoyne, Simon Zebo, CJ Stander, Conor Murray, and Mike Sherry in training at UL yesterday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Munster have been down this road plenty of times over the years. Injuries galore, a big French team coming to town for a knockout European clash - time to go back to the well again.

That well will be tested this weekend, as Johann van Graan looks to juggle his resources for what will be a huge test against a Toulon side who have found their way again.

Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will have to do something similar with Leinster, but their strength in depth is so pronounced that they should be able to cope just fine.

Perhaps nothing sums up the considerable difference between the provinces' resources as much as the back-row conundrum that they each face this week.

The luckless Tommy O'Donnell joined Chris Cloete on the injury list, which leaves Munster worryingly short of openside options.

Conor Oliver is the only other fit, natural number seven, but Van Graan may instead opt to play Robin Copeland, Jack O'Donoghue or Dave O'Callaghan. That, however, would very much be a case of putting square pegs in round holes. Rory Scannell has become a key man for Munster and if he also misses the game, he will leave a considerable void in midfield. That's on top of being without Jaco Taute and Chris Farrell.

"Any injury at this stage is a massive blow," an optimistic Van Graan said in Limerick yesterday.

"But we had our review and preview this morning. It's not an excuse for us. We're a squad, we like challenges.

Experienced

"For the big games, you want your experienced guys but it's also an opportunity for a guy who hasn't played in those big games to say ,'Pick me, I want the ball and I want to contribute to this team.'"

For Leinster, the loss of Josh van der Flier has paved the way for Dan Leavy to enhance his rapidly growing reputation, and while Jack Conan is a doubt for the Saracens game on Sunday, Seán O'Brien and Rhys Ruddock have both returned to training.

Robbie Henshaw will be missed in midfield, and while losing Jordan Larmour and Noel Reid reduces their options, Garry Ringrose and Isa Nacewa is certainly not a bad fallback partnership to have.

The conveyor belt of talent in Leinster is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon, and it's up to everyone else to keep up with them.

Looking at the underage international teams is generally a good indicator of the talent coming through, and while these things do work in cycles, Munster will be concerned by their lack of representation in this year's Ireland U-20s team in particular.

In their final Six Nations game against England a fortnight ago, Jack O'Sullivan was the only Munster player included in the starting XV.

There were another three on the bench but, ultimately, one starter is not enough for a team of Munster's calibre.

In many ways, it's not that surprising, because the standard of the schools game that is played in Leinster is on another level to any of the other three provinces.

It goes without say that the sizeable playing numbers in Leinster helps in that regard, but so too does the level of coaching that is going on from grassroots level.

Munster came in for some criticism when they signed two South African schoolboys rather than focusing their attention on producing their own home-grown players. But that is the reality of the way professional rugby is going, particularly with the advent of the five-year residency rule.

Donal Lenihan raised an interesting point in his newspaper column earlier this season, about the lack of Limerick forwards coming through.

"The Munster player roster for the 2017/'18 season lists 42 contracted players including 22 forwards," Lenihan wrote.

"It must be a concern that only two of those forwards, Kilcoyne and Mike Sherry, are from Limerick. What's going on here?"

Back in 2009 after Ireland won the Grand Slam, Leinster and Munster met in the Heineken Cup semi-final, and it was the team in blue who made a real statement of intent in Croke Park.

Majority

What has followed in the majority of the years since, has been Leinster assuming the mantle of the number one province in the country.

Nine years later and following another Grand Slam success, not even the staunchest Munster supporter could deny that it is their old foes who look far more primed to reign supreme in Europe again.

It is by no means all doom and gloom for Munster, however, because there are encouraging signs.

O'Sullivan was the stand-out performer for the Ireland U-20s in the Six Nations, while a trip to Donnybrook last Saturday to watch the U-19s against Japan, suggested that the likes of Sean French, Billy Scannell and Conor Phillips are ones to keep a close eye on in the coming years.

Friday afternoon's British and Irish Cup clash between Leinster and Munster 'A' will offer another insight into the relative strength and depth of each province.

But they are potential stars of the future, and Munster have enough on their plate for what is coming this weekend.

Toulon will arrive in Limerick locked and loaded. It will take a special Munster performance to prove that the well hasn't run dry this time around.

Irish Independent

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