Friday 24 January 2020

The injury doubt, the rookie and the centre who can fill Munster void left by Joey Carbery

Van Graan remains positive despite Carbery's injury setback

Ben Healy at training yesterday. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Ben Healy at training yesterday. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

For so long, Munster never had to worry about their No 10 jersey. Since Ronan O'Gara retired, it's been a very different story.

Ian Keatley had some great moments, but never seemed to quite convince the fan-base, while JJ Hanrahan has had to wait until his 28th year for an extended run in the jersey.

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Rory Scannell. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Rory Scannell. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Tyler Bleyendaal was identified as a solution, but his neck problems have denied him any real chance of taking ownership of the shirt, while Joey Carbery looked destined to be the man when he moved from Leinster but has been hit by injury setback after injury setback.

When Carbery arrived at the start of last season, Munster appeared to be overburdened with out-halves so Keatley was allowed to leave for Benetton via London Irish and Bill Johnston made his way to Ulster.

Both of them will be involved in the Champions Cup this weekend, while their old team are dealing with an out-half crisis.


Hanrahan is rated as 50/50 for Sunday's crunch visit to Paris and will be given until tomorrow to prove his fitness. If he doesn't make it, then last year's Ireland U-20 out-half Ben Healy will vie with inside centre Rory Scannell for the start.

Healy (20) is highly rated, but he has only started one senior game. Centre Scannell's last start at No 10 came against the Dragons in 2015.

He's covered there in games and was a regular out-half in his school and club days, but that's a way off facing Racing away and Johann van Graan may feel his experienced presence at inside centre alongside Healy would a better fit.

Hanrahan, Van Graan confirmed, will start if he is fit but he needs to be 100 per cent right.

JJ Hanrahan. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
JJ Hanrahan. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

The Kerryman is enjoying his longest run in the Munster No 10 shirt and his form has been good, but rushing him back from the hamstring injury he suffered against Leinster would be counter-productive.

If he's not right, then Healy appears the likely option. The youngster, who came through at Nenagh Ormond and captained Glenstal Abbey to their first Munster Schools Senior Cup, made his first senior start in the defeat to Edinburgh in November.

He's been involved in Munster's match-day warm-ups as the travelling reserve, but Van Graan's selection of a six forwards/two backs split on the bench has limited his involvement.

"Both are different types of players. I don't want to speculate on it too much, hopefully we'll have JJ," he said of the decision between Scannell and Healy.

"Ben's strong point is his kicking game and his game-management. We play indoors in a totally different environment (in Racing) than we've got currently out here (in Limerick). The ball does travel a bit further, the ball is drier so that brings it into it.

"Rory is a left-footer and also he's played No 10 before, he knows the squad very well and he's been in and around this team for a very long time.

"Two totally different players and we'll make our decisions, if we have to, based on what's the best for the team on Sunday.

"JJ is in good form, he was out on the pitch for a while today, did a bit of team training. He's not at 100 per cent yet, (but he) is an experienced No 10 and an important member of our squad. He has been the in-form 10.

"We will put him through a fitness test on Friday and if he comes through that, we'll put him into training and if he comes through training, we'll select him. If he doesn't come through that, then we're going to go with Ben and Rory. We'll make our decision then.

"We've been in this position before and it's next man in. We will back JJ to be ready, (but) I'm definitely not going to risk him. We're really hopeful that he will be ready and if not, (I'm) really excited to see Ben and Rory."

Starting against Racing would be a big ask, but the South African was effusive in his praise of the 20-year-old yesterday as he weighed up his big decision.

"That's what sport is about. If he gets that opportunity, that's just the way sport works," he said. "It's an opportunity for somebody to do something great. He has grown within the squad, he's been with the European squad for the last number of weeks.

"We took him the Ospreys game to get the feel and he was in every game the warm-up, (played) against Edinburgh. He was in the Connacht 23 but JJ just played so well and it was tight in the back end so we didn't put him on. So he has been part of the squad and if he does get selected he will hopefully perform on Sunday."

The absence of Carbery is, Van Graan admitted, hugely frustrating.

Recruited at the end of the 2017/'18 season, the Athy native has made 17 appearances out of a possible 45 and just seven since the end of 2018.

"He had a bit of a knock in the first half against Ulster and nothing seemed serious. He struggled a bit with his grip but didn't feel a lot of pain," Van Graan said of his latest setback. "We sent him for a scan on Monday and it came back that there was some damage to the hand.

"It was a bit of a surprise for all of us, really. He was gutted when he came in on Monday and I said to him that it's unfortunate, that's rugby and that's life. He is certainly a very strong character and he's come back from a few setbacks. I'm sure he'll come back from this one as well.

"The quality is so big with Joey and with the nature of the injury, at least there are some other things in the initial part of his rehab that we can do to improve him even more.

"That's why I got him to Munster, he's such a big part of where we want to take this team. We've had him for 80 minutes this season and unfortunately that's just the way rugby goes. Joey will be back stronger.

"Hopefully we'll have him back in the coming months and then, longer-term, hopefully we will have him in pre-season and into the new year, we can build around him. He'll definitely be better."

That's next season. Right now this campaign is on the line and Van Graan is looking at the injury doubt, the rookie and the centre as his options. It's not ideal, but he's putting a brave face on it.

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