Sunday 17 November 2019

Scrum-half battle will be intriguing as fresh game plan evolves

Expert View: Tomás O'Leary

On the right path: Munster’s Craig Casey has impressed when given the opportunity at scrum-half. Photo: Sportsfile
On the right path: Munster’s Craig Casey has impressed when given the opportunity at scrum-half. Photo: Sportsfile

Tomás O'Leary

Munster probably just about deserved the bonus point win against Ospreys last weekend, even if they had to wait until the last minute to secure it, but they'd take a win of any hue from Cardiff tomorrow.

They've lost on their last two trips to the Arms Park, and I don't think any of the player will need reminding of what happened there last year - that 37-13 defeat was the heaviest of Johann van Graan's tenure.

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Four game into the season, it has been a decent start. Workman-like in some areas, bright in others, while some young fellas have been blooded and have had their taste.

Jack O'Sullivan go his first start last weekend, while Fineen Wycherley and Shane Daly have had a bit more exposure that last year and it augurs well for the future. Those young fellas will put huge value on all of those minutes and it will pay dividends when they get their next chance later in the season.


Craig Casey looks like a good talent but it's really hard to tell for sure with two brief appearances as a replacement. In those limited minutes he has been impressive. I had heard about him before I'd seen him play, but then I saw a couple of his U20s games earlier in the year. He looked tasty in those games. The way he carries himself, the way he dictates to the forwards, and the energy he brings to the game, were all evident when he came on last weekend. That's very impressive from a young player. His reputation is growing and I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do when he gets a decent run in the team.

Can he provide a genuine alternative to Conor Murray? That's the big question. It's very important that the pressure is put on Murray, because Munster and Ireland have become over-dependent on him in the last four or five years. When he has been injured he has been missed, and when his form dips the focus of the team has been affected.

Alby Mathewson is a very experienced and talented player, but he hasn't long left on his deal. It's up to Casey, Neil Cronin, John Poland and Nick McCarthy to put the pressure on now whenever they get a chance.

Once again I was encouraged by Munster in the manner of their victory against Ospreys. Ospreys hung in tough to try and get the bonus point so the game was competitive until the end.

Mike Haley was very good and Dan Goggin impressed - his stock seems to be rising quickly - but other than that I don't think anyone really set the world alight.

It was great to see James Cronin get in for another try - his fourth in a week - and it says a lot about him that he played with Highfield the week before last on his week off. He was with Dolphin for a while, but as soon as Highfield came up as a senior club he went straight back to his roots. He loves the club. He has been frustrated by the last few years with the bad luck and injuries he's had, so it's good to see back.

The arrival of Stephen Larkham is an interesting move from Johann van Graan, but it's a bit early to pass judgment just yet. I think you can see there is a real effort to push the ball out wide, they are trying new things. But he's no fool either - he will bring a pragmatic approach to the game plan, and he'll tweak one or two things in the short term.

The talent is there in the backline to be a threat, but it has to be utilised, particularly when it comes to the big knock-out games. Munster have reverted to type in those matches in recent seasons, and there is a realisation there that they have to evolve, so having his influence there is a positive.

I'm sure we'll see the same approach this weekend against Cardiff. I haven't seen much of them so far this season, but all reports suggest they are trying to play the same quick game as they did last year.

This will be a real defensive test for Munster. Cast your mind back to just over a year ago when Gareth Anscombe, Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo went to town and doled out that 24-point defeat.

It was one of Munster's worst performances last year, and with the European Cup so close it is vital that they are on the money for this one.

I'm sure we'll see a handful of the Irish lads back for next week's game against Ulster, but the last couple of weeks will have been very different for all the lads. Some of them will be mad to get back playing after getting less game time than they would have expected, but maybe guys like Murray and Peter O'Mahony will still be getting over the loss. A couple of weeks real good downtime is exactly what they need.

The Heineken Cup pool that Munster have been handed this year means they have to hit the ground running, so having that challenge appearing on the horizon will soon have them interested in rugby again.

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