Wednesday 16 October 2019

Tony Ward: Dan Carter can be key as Munster's greatest danger comes from within

Greatest No 10 of all time will still have something to say in what will be an epic contest

Racing 92's Dan Carter. Photo: Sportsfile
Racing 92's Dan Carter. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Forget all this mumbo jumbo about 'first receivers', 'heads-up rugby' and all the buzz phrases coined in the jingoistic speak of the modern game. Show me a successful team and I'll show you a pretty impressive out-half, stand-off, No 10 - call him what you will.

Yes, we have seen the second-five-eight system introduced in New Zealand many moons ago yet never was it brought in as means of replacing the outside-half.

Given that it was the only position I filled (bar a few games in the centre), I think I am well-equipped to comment on a role that has never changed, irrespective of who is the coaching guru at the helm.

I will not deny that it was most reassuring to have a centre alongside, whether wearing 12 or 13, who was tactically proficient with the boot. Yet, I defy anyone to suggest the role and the importance of the out-half to be any less today than it was before the game went professional.

That it is much more physical and far more claustrophobic is beyond dispute but the rugby out-half remains to his or her team what the quarterback is to theirs in gridiron.

Where I do see a definite difference is in the requirements of the replacements and not just the out-half. Once a coach names his starting No 10 then he is charged with the task of having a game-changer in reserve.

The immediate impact of any sub is a modern-game prerequisite; now more than ever is it a 23-man game but the importance of the starting out-half still trumps all.

There have been many great out-halves down through the years and I think we, as a relatively small rugby-playing nation, have contributed our share; not least in recent years chiefly through Ronan O'Gara and Johnny Sexton.

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It used to be the Welsh leading the way courtesy of Max Boyce's famous out-half factory in the Valleys. Think Barry John, Phil Bennett, Jonathan Davies and you get the drift.

On balance, however, it is the Kiwis who again set the bar highest. We'll not delve too deeply into the never-ending list of great out-halves to wear All Black but suffice to say that Dan Carter and Beauden Barrett have set new standards in all-round excellence.

Carter is no longer the force of old, with Springbok Pat Lambie now the main man at Racing 92 but not for a minute will Munster be underestimating the potential impact of Carter, given what transpired upon his introduction against Clermont in the 28-17 win at Stade Marcel-Michelin in the quarter-final.

There is too that sense of the enemy from within, given O'Gara's involvement with Racing. Allied to that is the presence of one Donnacha Ryan. We will return to the mighty Tipperary man anon.

When Munster and Racing met in their pool in Limerick back in October, Carter seemed to be carrying an injury.

I remember thinking to myself at the time, as I watched a highly competitive and hugely physical contest, that time was up for the former Crusaders magician - the greatest out-half of all time in my opinion.

In fairness, so typical of the all-time great that he is, he has soldiered on since.

There is the still incentive of a pension to be picked up in Japan on the way home to New Zealand but equally is his innate competitive streak still burning. The carrot of a Champions Cup medal to make good the loss to Saracens in 2016 must be impossible to ignore for an athlete with Carter's hunger for success.

A Champions Cup medal to display alongside his hordes from Super Rugby, Top 14, Tri Nations, World Cup and a Lions series would make the career of the most complete No 10 pretty close to complete.

Lambie gets the nod to start at the pivot position tomorrow and Carter will surely make a significant contribution at some point but you can rest assured that CJ Stander will be set to hit that channel at every opportunity.

It would be unfair to Stander, given his nature, to suggest 'previous' between he and the former Springbok out-half but, lest we need reminding, there was that red-card incident in the first Test at Newlands in 2016.

In an ideal world, Carter would probably have been the choice of Racing 92's Laurents - Travers and Labit - to start but here the impact factor may have made their decision for them. Carter, at 36, is not the force of old but what he has still is the ability (and desire) to threaten the gain line and create space for others.

There is still life in those old-but-battered legs and Munster will not be underestimating that threat one bit. Neither will they be underestimating the physical challenge posed by the Parisians.

In Nenagh's finest Donnacha Ryan and Fijian magician Leone Nakarawa, Racing have the oddest, yet most effective, second-row pairing in European rugby at present.

Against that is the most under-rated but not undervalued player in the competition, in Billy Holland. If ever two players epitomise what Munster rugby is about when taking over from the ultimate warrior in Paul O'Connell, then Ryan (still) and Holland represent that transition. It is for that reason more than any other - even O'Gara - that I suggest the real enemy today will come from within.

The battle of the half-backs - with Maxime Machenaud expected to put it up to Conor Murray - will be crucial but if Ryan and the Racing pack can tap into the Munster psyche, then it is very much game on.

And just as Lambie, Carter and Ian Keatley will be the most obvious targets in Bordeaux tomorrow so too will Johnny Sexton and Dan Jones in the Aviva today.

First receivers? Give me a break.

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