Friday 18 October 2019

Chances to impress are so precious as back-row battle rages

Buttevant man keen to lay down a marker after injury-ravaged campaign last season

Shane Buckley scored a try for Munster in their impressive win over Ballynahinch
Shane Buckley scored a try for Munster in their impressive win over Ballynahinch

Daragh Small

With six star names gone to the Rugby World Cup, there is a real promise of opportunity around the Munster camp these days.

Only five will return, as Paul O'Connell begins his journey in the south of France.

Therefore the opening rounds of the Pro12 provide the players who didn't make Joe Schmidt's 31-man squad with a chance to nail down a place for their province.

The only problem at Munster is the competition in the back-row has become more ferocious than ever. Captain Peter O'Mahony will not don the red jersey for at least a couple of months and Tommy O'Donnell remains a long-term casualty.

But so much has been added to the mix. CJ Stander goes from strength to strength at No 8; Dave O'Callaghan is the only player in the back-row to have played 160 minutes; Robin Copeland has returned from his injury-hit campaign; and Jordan Coghlan has added a new dynamic.

The 2015 Greencore Academy Player of the Season Jack O'Donoghue stole the headlines last season when he burst onto the scene, but the 2014 equivalent is hungry for minutes too.

Shane Buckley is a real contender in the No 6-8 joust though. He got ten minutes on the pitch against Treviso and knows he needs to make every second count.

The 2014-15 season began so brightly for 23-year-old Buttevant native; however, a niggly shoulder injury he picked up against Nottingham in the B&I Cup put paid to his chances.

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He played the entire 80 minutes of the 14-13 defeat to Edinburgh at Thomond Park at the start of the Pro12 season. But that was Munster's first time to lose three on the bounce in their glorified Limerick lair, and the omens didn't bode well for Buckley.

"Last season began well for me personally but it never took off from there," he says.

"I had a bit of a shoulder issue from October onwards - it was a labrum tear and it just wasn't healing right for me. It had a big impact on my season last year and I couldn't do myself justice after I hurt my shoulder.

"The physios told me to get surgery on it and, over time, it really helped me become more comfortable on the training pitch even. I am feeling a lot better now this year. Hopefully I can push on a bit more considering I'm fully fit."

The former Rockwell College student only played a combined five minutes against Cardiff Blues and Glasgow Warriors in February.

But his season was over far too soon and his long road to recovery began while the rest of his team-mates focused on bringing Munster to the brink of a Pro12 success.

Buckley may not have been able to excel on the pitch, but as part of the senior squad for the first time, he learned the ways of the professional athlete.

"I definitely feel like I'm in better shape this time around. When you are more in the system it becomes easier and you can perform much better as a player.

"For example, I know all the calls now this season, and that makes it easier to play your rugby."

Munster Rugby has always been a case of the collective, and so many great players have graced Cork and Limerick over the years. But the team has come before the individual.

With O'Mahony away on international duty and O'Connell's influence now a fond memory, these few weeks could define the rest of the season. Buckley just wants to make his mark and motivate those around him in the ways of the influential duo. However, the Garryowen clubman knows he must fight for his place all over again, but he doesn't mind what number he wears.

"I can play anywhere in the back-row, I actually don't really mind whether I play at No 8, on the blindside or even on the openside. As long as I am on the pitch and giving it 100 per cent I don't really care where I play.

"It was great to be involved in all three pre-season games. I hadn't really played rugby since February, so I was happy with that. But this is when it really matters and I want get in and influence every game that I can.

"It will be interesting to see how that battle goes but there is serious quality in here at the moment even without Peter and Tommy.

"Being captain, Peter's leadership qualities are excellent and he has all the skills that a good blindside requires.

"When you think he is a Munster captain at such a young age as well, it's really something that you would aspire to be like."

However, there is a 21-year-old O'Donoghue who also wants to nail down a spot during a transitional period in the club's history.

Buckley enjoys his battle with Jack and the other back-rows, but thinks he has done enough in pre-season to make it a more memorable 2015-16.

"Jack played a number of games last year and performed really well when he got his chance," says Buckley.

"There is always a healthy competition between the back-rows in the team, and it will be interesting to see what Jack can do this year again.

"But fitness was my main aim in pre-season. My 1km times got better and that was a huge thing for me, to get that down was really important. It will help my game too no end. It's great to always add something new."

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