Thursday 22 February 2018

'Munster bench will come out of the traps early'

Legend Horan insists Reds do have strength in depth to sink Toulon

Marcus Horan believes Munster can overcome their underdog status when they face French giants Toulon
Marcus Horan believes Munster can overcome their underdog status when they face French giants Toulon
David Kelly

David Kelly

There is much we know about Toulon v Munster. Toulon are massive. Munster cannot miss tackles. Munster's leading Lions – O'Connell, Murray et al – must play well.

But what about their supposedly lesser lights? Do Munster have the depth to challenge a squad of galacticos, almost 10 of whom are paid beyond €500,000 per annum, with World Cup medals jangling in so many pockets?

Munster's mostly unheralded young guns, particularly those who may not exactly be household names beyond these shores, will prove just as crucial to their side's hopes as their talismanic totems, led by O'Connell, of whom greatness is automatically expected.

Marcus Horan, whose first taste as a Heineken Cup player coincided with Munster's first ever win in France, 16 years ago in Toulouse against Colomiers, when deputising at the last minute for Peter Clohessy, can acutely alight on this fact.

For, it may be one thing having Bryan Habana but, if he arrives when the game has developed a particular pulsating rhythm, or if his team-mates can't get him the ball, he may end up just as irrelevant as a lighthouse in a field.

Munster's strength in depth is, Horan firmly believes, deceptively virulent.

After all, each side can only field 15 players at any one time and Munster have shown already this season that they can cope with any adversity, even the absence of their influential captain Peter O'Mahony.

"It depends on what's going on in the game at the time," says Horan, focusing on the specifics of the squad. "No doubt, Toulon have way more quality and experience.

"But, for example, if Bryan Habana comes on, is he sharp enough? Can they get the ball to him?

"Sure, they've way more experience right across the board. But the key for Munster is to take that influence out of the game as early as possible. Make it a tight game.

"Make them worry. If you can make their bench irrelevant by the time they come on, that's the aim.

"The Munster bench is important too. My feeling is that the Munster bench will come out of the traps and rip into Toulon early on. It's important for the Munster bench to come on and add pace to the game then and lift the guys who might be flagging.

"And then when the Toulon guys come on, they're chasing and worried. But Munster need to be in the game."

As he begins to narrow his thesis, Horan only needs to look beside O'Connell's looming presence in the second-row to pinpoint his theory.

ABRASIVE

"Dave Foley is a good example," says the two-time Heineken Cup winner and 2009 Grand Slam champion.

"He's very abrasive and a guy who has improved an awful lot this season in particular. One of the criticisms would be that he borders on giving away too many penalties.

"But he has an attitude. He will show no respect to Toulon. He's a guy who will stand toe-to-toe to anyone. That's the attitude that a young guy with little experience needs to have.

"It's all very fine having that attitude, but you need to back it up. And I've seen him back it up. That's hugely important.

"Listen, a guy has to start from somewhere. It's nice to look down your list and see loads of caps but these guys have to start somewhere.

"This is a massive stage for them all now. Someone like him won't take a step back. That's the strength in depth we have. If he hadn't any European rugby, we'd be worried. But he has played and it's not all about international caps."

In Horan's own specialist position at loosehead, he has seen Dave Kilcoyne develop into an Irish international and, presuming James Cronin is injected with something sufficiently stern enough to last the day, Toulon may not fear this depth but Munster will be emboldened by it.

"Dave had a great year last season, to go on to play for Ireland but this year hasn't been as good by his standards," admits Horan.

"He was left out of the Ireland squad,but his attitude has been brilliant, he got his head down and worked hard for Munster. Again this is another guy who has someone in James Cronin biting at his heels.

"The joke going around was that 'Killer' may have been disappointed with not making the Ireland squad, but the lads were telling him to mind his own house because his Munster place wasn't guaranteed.

"And that's so true, he has played brilliantly and when Dave gets back in, he ups his game. That's the strength in depth that improves the player and improves the team."

That strength will be undeniably tested though, on the presumption that JJ Hanrahan's groin is still banjaxed, forcing Conor Murray into emergency cover at out-half for Ian Keatley.

However, Hanrahan's emergence has propelled Keatley to new heights.

"JJ coming on the scene has really helped Ian's game," says Horan. "There can be a case that when you're waiting for someone to leave like Ronan O'Gara, you can exhale with relief and think you have the jersey.

"But then JJ came on and lit the place up with some of his play. Ian knew then he had to raise his game and he really has done so. If we only had one out-half, and then someone who you could only trust for five minutes, I don't think Ian would have grown the way he has. That's hugely important, to have a fella nipping at his heels. We've got the best out of him."

A bit like before their audacious 2000 semi-final coup against Toulouse in Bordeaux, it remains to be seen whether his belief will be shared by supporters, many of whom are pleasantly surprised just to be here.

"They are probably getting emails and letters saying it's been a great year, thanks for everything," he smiles.

"That's people being good-natured, there is no badness in it, but that will definitely be a driving force for the lads.

"There's young guys in this Munster team who would have looked up to the Matt Giteaus and guys like that for years and now they are taking the field against them, so how they react to that that is the key.

"You would have no doubts about the older guys because they have been there before, but it is about how our young guys react on Sunday. We have seen in certain games that they can do it."

Their biggest stage yet awaits this Sunday.

Marcus Horan was speaking at a Sky Sports event ahead of the Toulon v Munster Heineken Cup semi-final, which is exclusively live on Sky Sports 2 on Sunday.

Irish Independent

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