Sunday 18 February 2018

Coughlan's early return massive Munster boost

Some might whisper that perhaps they're a fragile lot ... but only once, though.

Conor Murray dismisses the suggestion with a nervous laugh, checking that none of those most hardy of rugby warriors are within earshot.

Back-row forwards are not likely to take kindly to the suggestion there is anything resembling fragility about them, and the canny Murray doesn't want to be found guilty by association!

"I don't know (why so many are injured). There's no reason that I can think of. I think it's just a case of bad luck," said Murray.

Bad luck hardly seems enough to explain why CJ Stander and Tommy O'Donnell have now joined Sean Dougall and Niall Ronan on the injured list for Munster. Stander, it has been revealed, broke a bone in his right hand on Saturday, and O'Donnell rolled his ankle again. One of them was pencilled in to start this weekend.

Thank the gods for James Coughlan's outrageously quick powers of recovery. In September Coughlan (right) tore his groin off the bone. Five months, the doctors said. The Munster hierarchy privately ruled him out until the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup.

Before the ERC's noon deadline for registering additional players yesterday, Munster nominated Coughlan as a replacement for Ivan Dineen, who has been deregistered for the next two games.

Coughlan's availability for this weekend's game against Saracens is hugely unexpected – and timely.

When the medical experts gave Coughlan a five-month timeline, he obviously took it as a challenge. In the end, it was less than three and, on Saturday, he will don the No 8 jersey he has made his own over the last three years.

He has been missed by the team in recent months. Munster's pack has been rudderless without his quiet assurance at the base.

Captain Doug Howlett is in no doubt about Coughlan's importance, especially with so many injuries to contend with.

"The positive spin is that James, who is a quality player and has been a quality player for us for a long time, is back unexpectedly. He got through a lot of work last week and will be a big plus for us," said Howlett.

Coughlan's importance and influence on Munster was emphasised when he beat off competition from Keith Earls, Doug Howlett and Ronan O'Gara to be named player of the Year in 2010-11 season. He was again shortlisted for 2011-12.

His enduring excellence was finally recognised during the summer when he added to his Sevens international honours by playing for Ireland in the pre-Tour game against the Barbarians. Whether he would have been included in the Ireland camp for the November internationals had he been fit, is a moot point.

But his importance to Munster is undeniable. On Saturday he will pack down with Peter O'Mahony and, more than likely, his Dolphin clubmate Dave O'Callaghan in a back-row that will be far more at ease with Munster's expansive game plan.

All three players are quick, all three have good hands, all are line-out options and while they don't have the headline-grabbing swagger of a marauding, ball-carrying unit they are all more than capable of making the hard yards.

Far from being downbeat at the injury losses the team have suffered, Howlett is enthused at what they have.

"The pleasing thing is we have a quality player in James coming back, Peter O'Mahony returning from international duty and Dave O'Callaghan, who has had some fantastic games this year for us.

"I guess we're lucky in that we have a lot of depth."

However, Munster will be stretched this weekend against a Saracens side Howlett has a lot of respect for.

"They have some exciting strike players out wide," added Howlett. "Charlie Hodgson is back now and he pulls the strings quite well at No 10. He has a great pass and a good kick as well. Across the pitch we are expecting to be challenged.

"They can also play a tight game and have a great kicking game. Given the (likely) conditions it will be a challenge for our defence if they opt to run, but on the other side we'd like to challenge them as well."

Irish Independent

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