Tuesday 24 April 2018

Munster need Earls back to get the balance right

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Thankfully for Munster, Tony McGahan has been around the block often enough to keep things in perspective. Win and you are never the best team in the world; equally, when you lose, you don't become the worst.

So, while in an attacking context losing to Leinster represented a performance best forgotten for the Munster men, there were still positives upon which to build for the Heineken Cup opener against London Irish.

Save for the final half-hour when the Leinster replacement half-backs took control, the Munster physicality in contact at least matched a Leinster unit stoked up in that essential department for the first time this season.

Munster's cohesion and unity of purpose at the breakdown was exemplary, but their inability to translate field position and possession into points cost them dear.

The nature of almost every sporting contest is that at different times teams will enjoy different degrees of domination. The key is in capitalising on your domination during that spell. And therein lies the problem for Munster.

Behind the scrum they appear extremely limited in line-breaking capability and, by extension, try-scoring potential. However, I still harbour hope that a fully fit Keith Earls alongside a properly focused Lifeimi Mafi will see a more balanced, and therefore more potent, midfield combination.


Sam Tuitupou is still settling in, but the early signs point more towards bludgeon than rapier. Centres are bigger and beefier now than ever, but give me a dainty dancer before a door-breaking bouncer any time.

Declan Kidney is of a similar frame of mind; his belief in Paddy Wallace as an inventive playmaker is well placed.

Legend has it that Seamus Dennison (he of that famous tackle against the All Blacks) was a blockbusting centre. Nothing could be further from the truth. He could compete in the tackle and hit way above his weight (just ask Stu Wilson) but Seamus was first and foremost a smooth and evasive ball-handling runner in midfield.

Brian O'Driscoll is the most complete centre there has ever been -- witness the honesty of his tackling and quality of his support and space-creation for others again on Saturday. His combination with Gordon D'Arcy still provides balance and potency for Leinster and Ireland.

Irrespective of what happens the citing in relation to Mafi's indiscretion on Saturday, McGahan has policy and combination issues to address in midfield. Dougie Howlett might not have the blinding pace of old, but both he and the thus-far impressive Johne Murphy are finishers and footballers with the right attitude.

Going back to basics is all very well, but it is imperative Munster do not lose sight of the balance that has propelled them to two well-earned European titles, most particularly the irresistible style and panache of 2008.

Another very real positive ahead of the Heineken Cup trip to Reading came in the shape of Denis Leamy at No 8.

I have questioned his selection in the middle of the back row (ahead of Anthony Foley) in times past, but immaturity has been replaced by reality.

Despite being up against an on-fire Leinster unit of Dominic Ryan, Sean O'Brien and most particularly his opposite number Jamie Heaslip, Leamy still managed to look the real deal.

That's good news not only for McGahan, but for Kidney and for Ireland too.

Heaslip is clearly the man and for me the Irish skipper in waiting, but should he be ruled out it is imperative there is someone ready and waiting. Leamy is that man, with the facility to operate at blindside flanker.

As for O'Brien? I do not share the view that he should consider converting to the front row. He is a class back-row forward and already a very real challenger to David Wallace for the green No 7 shirt.

The days of type-casting and positioning based on body shape are over. O'Brien is a dynamic ball-carrier but equally effective in his off-the-ball defence. He was, as Joe Schmidt pointed out, one of the defensive leaders alongside Heaslip at the Aviva.

On the assumption Shane Jennings, if fit, returns for Ryan, that would leave the choice between Shane Horgan and Isa Nacewa for the right wing the one real decision to exercise the mind. I expect Schmidt will go with the former, which would represent a tough call on Nacewa, but with Eoin Reddan and Jonny Sexton set to resume at half-back, the right wing seems the only possible route to selection available for the versatile Kiwi.

Leinster are a different team entirely with Sexton at No 10. With him there they have discernible shape. Without their pivotal playmaker, they descend into chaos.

Reddan, too, in his half-hour cameo, sealed the deal on Saturday. He must still guard against unnecessary steps so when he moves laterally, it is with the intention of duping the opposition defence so he can put better-placed runners into holes. When it comes to front-foot high-tempo rugby, no scrum-half here (Tomas O'Leary included) does it better.

For both Leinster and Munster (despite the result) it represented the ideal preparation in terms of European-type intensity.

Ulster and Connacht benefited from a similar inter-pro collision the week before.

Ulster are not playing particularly well but they are still winning, while Connacht, despite the Cardiff (fatigue-induced) glitch, lack little by way of confidence ahead of another Amlin Cup assault.

Munster folk may not fully agree, but Saturday's match had that 80-minute intensive ingredient that feeds into the Heineken Cup. The tribal stage is set.

Irish Independent

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