Friday 15 December 2017

Neil Francis: Back-row and Tyler Bleyendaal hold Munster season in their hands

Tyler Bleyendaal – along with the likes of Tommy O’Donnell and CJ Stander – will be crucial to Munster’s chances against Leinster. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Tyler Bleyendaal – along with the likes of Tommy O’Donnell and CJ Stander – will be crucial to Munster’s chances against Leinster. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

There was a murder in my back garden last week. I can't say I was too unhappy about it; the victim got his just rewards. The previous night he had spent hours cooing on my roof - the feathers all over my garden meant he would coo no more.

I went out to have a look. It was gruesome - the bird had no head left and its innards were being supped on before the perpetrator was disturbed. I went for a shower and came back out to clean up to find even more of the carcass had been chewed up. Sitting on the fence was the murderer who was waiting for me to get lost - this was his kill.

Tommy O’Donnell and CJ Stander. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Tommy O’Donnell and CJ Stander. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Tiddles would wander back to his owners' back door, meow a couple of times, brush against his owners' legs, purr for the crowd, licks its paws and snuggle down in the warmest part of the house. Ten generations of domesticity and inter-living with humans yet it will kill anything it can in the most brutal fashion.

Whoever owned Tiddles would have no idea what he got up to that morning. The murderous intent! The malice aforethought. Cats are one-dimensional creatures and have been known to eat the little old lady who lovingly took care of them for the previous 10 years if she fell over dead from a heart attack and there was no Whiskas on the plate. It may lay dormant for a while but it's in them - it's in their nature.


That killer instinct which Munster have always had - it has lain dormant for five or six years now. It comes to the fore every now and then - it rarely leaves. Munster depend on it when they really need it. In fact, short on quality, short on leaders and restricted on their game plan, that instinct is the only thing that has sustained them in recent years. Never doubt it - it's in them.

I sense a little bit of interplanetary alignment coming about - it may or may not be a bit too early for their joust with Leinster this Saturday but I think the red horde might just have a good season in them this year.

I have always felt that the Munster coaching job is not a position - it is a predicament.

Rassie Erasmus was a serious proposition as a player, but then so too was Anthony Foley , but I think things even at this early stage look like they are going to change positively for Munster. What did Napoleon ask of his generals? Are they lucky? It's a big factor in professional sport.

We will give Erasmus until Christmas before we make a pronouncement - I think he is a very good coach. The guy that I have most interest in is Jacques Nienaber. I have heard his name a number of times before. He goes with Erasmus as his No 2 wherever they go and even though it will take Munster a while to adapt to his structures - they have been pretty stingy on D.

Munster, in the Pro12, have really only played teams that they would expect to finish below them so far. This season second place might be a little artificial and they may be a game or two away from their optimum combination but once they find it they will be difficult to beat.

It is no coincidence that during Munster's golden period one of the things that laid a foundation stone for their success was a superior back-row of Alan Quinlan, David Wallace and Anthony Foley. I think that Munster's number one back row of Peter O'Mahony, Tommy O'Donnell and CJ Stander are the best back-row in the country. If they stay injury-free, they will have a big bearing on how Munster perform this season.

I don't think that they are a particularly good blend or that they work well in concert but they have potency, dynamism and bucket loads of barnstorming aggression. I have always felt that O'Mahony has always done his own thing - he is such a good player and whatever he does works and his pack fall in behind him.

It is fantastic to see him back and if ever there was a tinge of regret about the summer tour of South Africa, you felt that if O'Mahony was on the pitch in the final Test he would have done half a dozen things to shape the complexion of a win in the final 30 minutes.

Stander and O'Donnell also by and large do their own thing as well. This back-row don't so much play in tandem but feed off each other's energy and it is a compelling and persuasive mix. Once Munster have a higher functioning 6, 7 and 8 all bets are back on.

I will have to see a bit more of Jean Kleyn before we can make an assessment. It is important that Donnacha Ryan has a competent and combative foil with him in the second-row.

Conor Murray it seems has been around for years - yet he is only 27 years of age. If he plays continuously with that back-row of Stander (26), O'Mahony (27) and O'Donnell (29), they could cause havoc for four or five years.

Tyler Bleyendaal is 26 also. The stand-out player of the 2010 Under-20 World Cup - a World Cup full of stand-out players who have progressed to greater things. In New Zealand they tell you early if you are not going to make it. Go and take the Euro!

The All Blacks have a dizzying array of quality in Beauden Barrett, Aaron Cruden and Limo Sopoaga at out-half. The Kiwis were right, Bleyendaal isn't in that class - but he still has real class - it is in him. This is where Munster's season hinges.


Bleyendaal was signed three seasons ago and he has started seven and come on in two games - not much return on investment.

There is a reason for that. The type of neck injury that Bleyendaal sustained is very difficult to recover from completely or consistently.

Like a car that has had a crash - if you damage the axle or a major part of the chassis - it will work again when it has been repaired but it will never be quite the same again.

If you damage your spine or neck or back it doesn't matter, once the nervous system or the spinal skeletal system is damaged you might fix it but you will always pick up injuries elsewhere. It is a big ask but if Bleyendaal can get through a season and play to something close to his potential then Munster would have a middle five as good as any in Europe. Yes, you need a tight five and yes you need to get your out-field sorted but mid-fives win you cups.

I never rated Lifeimi Mafi and I don't think much of Francis Saili. Cheeky Charlies! I always had time for Trevor Halstead - not the greatest at anything and if he had a race with his pregnant wife he would come third but he was a crucial component and always did the right thing and was a physical threat.

This guy Jaco Taute could be another blow-out or he might just fill an important gap. Just when they seem to have gathered a good group together, Taute could be the cherry on the top.

Saturday might be a bit too early for them to have gelled but Munster can do something this season. It is in them!

Irish Independent Sport Star Awards

Pick our magic sports moment of the year and win a trip for two to London. To view the shortlist and cast your vote click here.

Indo Sport

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport