Tuesday 23 January 2018

Munster searching for answers just as questions get hard

JJ Hanrahan of Munster. Photo: Sportsfile
JJ Hanrahan of Munster. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Rassie Erasmus exists in a comfort zone few coaches can enjoy right now, the decisions he makes in his current job will have no long-term implications on his own future.

The security of knowing that after Christmas he'll be back in South Africa allows him the space to field Tyler Bleyendaal in midfield as an experiment in the biggest game of Munster's season to date.

Defeat to Leinster is water off a duck's back for Erasmus. Yes, he'll be disappointed with the result, but he can afford to look at the bigger picture.

This week, he will restore Rory Scannell to the No 12 jersey, while Simon Zebo should return to the team in the back-three.

That would likely mean that the South African has three out-halves to select from for the away trip to Castres on Sunday.

Ian Keatley started at No 10 on Saturday, but was hauled ashore shortly after half-time.

Bleyendaal has been first-choice since last season, but when Alex Wootton came on he remained in the centre and JJ Hanrahan slipped into fly-half and took the kicks.

Can we read much into those manoeuvres? Perhaps not. But given the limited preparation ahead of the Reds' Champions Cup opener in the south of France, it was a curious call.

Form is difficult to gauge at this early point in the season and given the limited amount of good ball Munster were forced to live off for large periods of Saturday's game, nobody was given much of a chance to put their hands up.

Certainly, the backline began ticking better when Hanrahan was steering the ship in the last 20 minutes, but Ian Keatley can justifiably be frustrated that Leinster only conceded one penalty to Munster's eight when he was on the field.

In his post-match debrief, Erasmus was highly complimentary of the Reds' improving attack and pointed to the fact that his side out-scored the home team three tries to two on Saturday.

A pre-existing injury meant Hanrahan's involvement has been limited to two games thus far, but already there are signs that the prodigal son has much to offer the Reds' attack.

The Currow, Co Kerry native left in search of opportunities at out-half, but couldn't shift Stephen Myler at Northampton Saints during an injury-hit two season spell.

Few would have predicted that, at 25, he'd still be waiting for his first Ireland cap. His talent has never been in question, but for some reason he has struggled to convince coaches to make him their No 1 out-half.

Bleyendaal's iffy start to the season has perhaps opened a door for Hanrahan to stake his claim.

Although he took his opportunistic try well, Keatley was guilty of key errors during his 44 minutes on the field and has had plenty of chances at this stage.

Under Erasmus, Bleyendaal has consistently been first-choice when fit but he has been slow to get going in this campaign.

In the biggest games last season against Saracens and Scarlets, the New Zealander didn't perform but he did play a pivotal role in the province's powerful march to the European semi-finals.

This season, his goal-kicking has yet to hit the levels we saw last year, although Erasmus has stressed that he believes this will come right in time.

Reprise

Hanrahan could be asked to reprise his old role as impact sub, the one that led to arguably his most memorable Munster moment to date, when he danced down the Perpignan touchline to score the winning try.

Back then, he was a frustrated back-up but he's a mature figure now who may be content to play the long game.

Whether Munster can afford to keep him in reserve remains to be seen.

While all of this plays out, the Irish question is the bigger picture.

Johnny Sexton is the pre-eminent No 10 in the land, but with Paddy Jackson currently out of the game and Ian Madigan in exile there is a major question mark over who will provide back-up in November.

Joey Carbery is firmly ensconced at full-back for Leinster, meaning Keatley is the only other out-half Joe Schmidt has used available for the autumn.

Bleyendaal doesn't qualify to play for Ireland until January despite attending the national team's pre-season camp, so there is a shortage of options if Sexton goes down.

For Munster, the most pressing issue is picking the right man to lead their backline and their European success or failure could depend on Erasmus's decision.

Irish Independent

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