Friday 20 September 2019

David Wallace: 'Familiar faces set for return as Van Graan's side chase Italian masterpiece in Parma'

Conor Murray was back in training this week and should be fit to return to action soon. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Conor Murray was back in training this week and should be fit to return to action soon. Photo: SPORTSFILE

David Wallace

After an historic week for Irish rugby, I fully expect Munster to make a winning return to Guinness PRO14 action against Zebre this weekend.

A win last time out in South Africa against Cheetahs continued Munster's impressive form in the month of October, but a win against the Italian outfit is just as important if they are to maintain second position in Conference A.

Much of the talk before the last game concerned the number of players missing, but in the next week or two we'll see a couple of key additions to the squad as players return from injury.

Chris Farrell is one guy who is back in training and his return will be a massive plus. His comeback was delayed by a few weeks, so I'm sure he is chomping at the bit to make an impact after nine months on the sidelines.

It would be easy to forget what a phenomenal player he is - just look back at the Six Nations when he came into the squad and won man of the match against Wales before his injury. He was a big part of Joe Schmidt's and Johann van Graan's plans and he is a player who can make a massive difference.

All the focus has been on Conor Murray's absence, but in the background Tyler Bleyendaal has crept back in under the radar. He adds another dimension to a hotly-contested area at out-half. How long have we been talking bout filling the void that Ronan O'Gara left, so now to have Joey Carbery, Bleyendaal, Ian Keatley and Bill Johnson, the future looks bright.


Let's hope that Conor is ready to make his return in the next week too. Like the rest of us, I'm sure he was delighted with the Ireland win over New Zealand, but I'm sure there was a small part of him that was envious that he wasn't involved.

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He'll want to come back with a bang and remind us of his talents. Everyone is human and that New Zealand game will spur him on. He is the kind of guy that doesn't need a lot of match time either, so once he's injury-free he'll be ready to go.

Before Sunday's game we'll know exactly how third-placed Ospreys and leaders Glasgow will have gotten on against Leinster and Cardiff respectively, but whatever the results a win would be huge for Munster. With just three points separating second and fifth places, one bad weekend could change a lot.

One of the great things from the Ireland game last weekend was seeing all four provinces making a huge contribution. You cannot underestimate the effect that will have for the confidence throughout Irish rugby.

We know Irish rugby has been improving gradually for the last ten or 15 years, but even more recently Joe Schmidt has brought things on another notch - more so that in any other country. Bizarrely, in New Zealand they might be seeing a bit of a decline in their fortunes. Look at the Rugby Championship, they lost out to South Africa, they were pushed hard in another couple of games and were tested severely by England too.

While it's hard to find fault with any Irish player, I thought the whole back-row was immense: CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier shone, but Peter O'Mahony stood out in my eyes. After overcoming the difficulty of being injured in the lead-up to the Lions Tour he has recovered well and has been in a rich vein of form since. He is playing the best rugby of his career and that was typified at the weekend.

He took a few knocks during the game but it didn't dent his performance at all. He is so key to mentality of this Ireland team as well as Munster. He leads by example with his performance. He went off with a bit of a dead leg but hopefully he won't be out for too long and he'll be ready to transfer that form back into the Munster shirt.

For sure Ireland are on the way up and those Ireland players coming back to Munster will feel that they are part of the best team in the world.

As a province, maybe we in Munster need to believe in ourselves a little bit more. Just look at Leinster and their self-belief. It won't take much, but I believe Munster are as good as any team out there and they have the natural resources to beat anyone in Europe.


As well as Munster facing Zebre, I suspect we'll see a lot of the province's players in action against USA. One thing for sure, this is a USA team on the up. They've won all nine games they have played in 2018 and are now up to 13th in world standings - above Georgia and Italy.

It seems that Joe Schmidt favours John Ryan over Stephen Archer, while Munster have been giving Archer the nod, and both of them should get game-time this weekend. Andrew Porter seems to be the Ireland second choice tighthead, but this is a great chance for them to try and force their way into that shirt.

Andrew Conway, Tadhg Beirne, Joey Carbery will be eager to take their next chance in the green shirt, but it will be hard to match the impact made by the starters against New Zealand. Ahead of the World Cup, Schmidt will want to get game-time into guys, he'll be watching for new leaders to appear, so this is a long way from a meaningless clash.

For country and province, there is plenty to fight for this weekend.

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