Friday 25 May 2018

Comment: Ireland's out-half battle heats up as next generation try to book place on summer tour

Joey Carbery (left) and Ross Byrne (right).
Joey Carbery (left) and Ross Byrne (right).
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

As Leinster sweat over the fitness of the country's undisputed first-choice out-half, Munster are facing a dilemma of their own, as they must decide who their main man will be for Saturday's Guinness PRO14 semi-final.

It's not exactly a situation they would have wanted to find themselves in, especially not in the third week of May, but that is the reality for Johann van Graan.

Ian Keatley. Photo: Sportsfile
Ian Keatley. Photo: Sportsfile

Johnny Sexton might well recover from his groin problem in time to feature at the RDS, yet even if he doesn't, Leinster are not exactly short of quality, alternative options.

The Ireland squad for next month's tour will be finalised after this weekend's clash, which means that those who are on the fringes have a final chance to impress Joe Schmidt.

There are still some who feel that Sexton should be given the summer off, and while there are undoubtedly merits to that idea, it is highly unlikely to happen.

Over a year out from the World Cup, Schmidt will want as many as his front-liners in Australia as possible, and that includes his key man, Sexton.

There is, however, scope for the likes of Joey Carbery to get more, much-needed game-time, which in turn could open the door for another back-up out-half to do the same.

This time last month, the landscape was rather more straightforward. Ian Keatley was Munster's starting 10, but his wobbles in Bordeaux have since reopened the door for JJ Hanrahan.

In Leinster, it would appear that Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster still favour Ross Byrne to Carbery at out-half, so from that end it will be fascinating to see which way they go if Sexton does miss the Munster game.

Byrne was extremely unlucky not to have spent any time in Carton House during the spring and he will surely now feel that he is not too far away from a first call-up, particularly if he does get the nod on Saturday.

As it stands, the identity of Ireland's third-choice out-half is very much up in the air, and whoever comes out on top in Dublin could well secure a seat on the plane to Australia.

The opportunities to blood players between now and Japan next year are few and far between, and while Schmidt is unlikely to use this summer as a complete development tour, he is likely to blood some new combinations.

Of the four out-halves who could be on show in the derby clash, none are in the top 25 goal-kickers in the PRO14.

Keatley has the best record with 39/52 successful kicks (75pc) with Ross Byrne 49/69 (71.01pc), JJ Hanrahan 24/35 (68.57pc) lagging behind, while Carbery has only taken six shots at goal, which isn't enough to be included in the PRO14's database.

Hanrahan held his nerve against Edinburgh to help steer Munster into the last four, and that may be enough for him to edge Keatley again.

Tyler Bleyendaal would certainly have been in the equation but for his neck injury, while Munster have taken the measured approach with Bill Johnston, who has yet to start a senior game.

Hanrahan has had to bide his time and there is a sense that it is very much now or never for the talented Kerry native.

Getting the nod for what was his first start in a knockout game was a huge vote of confidence for a player who you always felt needed a coach to show faith in him over a prolonged spell.

The 25-year-old would be the first to admit that he hasn't exactly set the place alight since returning from his two-year spell with Northampton, but by the same token, he hasn't been given enough time in the hot seat.

He hasn't started more than two games in a row at out-half this season. If he gets the nod this weekend, that will change.

Following his time in England, he has started eight games at out-half, another three at full-back as well as eight appearances from the bench. That now brings his overall tally of starts in his preferred position to 23 in 83 games.

If Hanrahan is to be Munster's first-choice 10 going forward, he must prove that he has the game management to do so, particularly at the business end of the season.

"I suppose the main thing is the game management side of things," he said earlier this season, when asked what he learned during his stint away.

"A lot of the time when you are over in the Premiership a lot of it can come down to penalties and things like that, sometimes it can be more of a not playing in your own half, put the ball in their half. It is more of a control game. I learned that from being in England and being in the Premiership."

In a way, the outlook is similar for Carbery, which is why the more controlled Byrne has been preferred to the mercurial option so often this season.

The latter has more strings to add to his bow yet, and he would benefit hugely from working under Schmidt.

Byrne has started 19 games in the number 10 jersey this season compared to Carbery's one, in the position that he will be asked to provide back-up in at the World Cup next year.

Both sets of coaches have big selection calls to make this weekend. Sexton's fitness will dictate how much of a headache Cullen and Lancaster have, while Van Graan has a straight choice between Hanrahan and Keatley.

Opportunity knocks, and whoever takes their chance may not only be rewarded with a place in the PRO14 final, but also with a plane ticket to Australia.

Irish Independent

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