Wednesday 22 January 2020

Tony Ward: Midfield the big conundrum in Erasmus' Munster rebuilding task

Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Today in Belfast and Cardiff the top four meet, with Ulster entertaining the Ospreys and the Blues taking on Leinster at the Arms Park. It is still very early days but the most noticeable feature is a massive gap of some seven points between sixth-placed Glasgow and the Newport Gwent Dragons in seventh.

From an Irish perspective, it is Ulster who have hit the ground running in the most tangible way. Leinster are bubbling under just nicely and with Seán O'Brien, Robbie Henshaw and Jack Conan still to make their first competitive appearances, greater things will be expected in the weeks and months ahead.

For Connacht, the issue is more psychological but that said it is imperative the keys cogs that were Aly Muldowney, AJ MacGinty and Henshaw in last season's well-oiled machine are replaced with much more conviction and rapidly.

And what of Munster? Again I would preface any comment by reminding everyone that it's the embryonic stage of the season. But those early omens are good. Naturally, the players' take on things is effusive praise for 'the greatest coaching team ever'. My words not theirs but I'm sure you get the drift.

The old regime, save for Anthony Foley and Jerry Flannery, has moved on, making this the best ever ... until it's time for the next one!. Such is the transient world of professional sport with rugby, the new kid on the block, already entrenched in Pro speak. 'Getting back up on the horse' and all that.

Allied to the new state-of-the-art training facility at UL is the gradual abandonment of the twin-city approach. For those not familiar with the Cork/Limerick road (and bear in mind the sugar beet trucks have long gone), its removal from the weekly Munster agenda is massive.

Credit Flannery and, most particularly, Foley for adapting to the new regime. No matter what fancy names they spin, it is Rassie Erasmus (right) and Jacques Nienaber running the show. Were it me in Axel's shoes I'm not sure I could or would have taken the shift but I guess when reality dawns and you are getting well paid for what amounts to a labour of love, personal pride must on occasion take a hit.

Either way, the cocktail seems to be working despite the Cardiff glitch. The attempted transition is very similar to the Rob Penney era, but perhaps not as drastic or as alien given what amounted to a culture change under the less-than-appreciated Penney.

Here Erasmus has the advantage of tapping into Foley's take since his appointment as Forwards Coach under Penney back in 2012.

There is a line somewhere between what served Munster so well in times past and needs now. Erasmus appears much more tactful in building the blocks.

Only time will tell but certainly if the developing scrum is anything to go by then the foundation looks good. The head man called it right when urging caution given the greater physical challenges ahead starting with Leinster in the Aviva next week.

And yet in John Ryan, James Cronin and the longer established Dave Kilcoyne plus Stephen Archer, there is an element of props coming of age.

Whatever else there is genuine competition for the one and three shirts far removed from the Marcus Horan/John Hayes days of the nineties and early noughties when injury to either was tantamount to disaster.

Beyond that, Billy Holland has come into his own. He and Donnacha Ryan appear the most solid if unspectacular boiler house pairing and if that tight-five solidity provides the attacking platform for a back-row comprising any three from Peter O'Mahony, Dave O'Callaghan, Tommy O'Donnell, Conor Oliver, Jack O'Donoghue, Robin Copeland and CJ Stander, then happy days.

Beyond that, Conor Murray and a back three from Andrew Conway, Simon Zebo, Darren Sweetnam (really impressive in the early games to date) and Ronan O'Mahony offers that scoring edge, while Keith Earls should of necessity be closer to the action.

When Francis Saili is available there is undoubtedly a midfield threat but as of now the main issue surrounds the balance at out-half and centre.

Tyler Bleyendaal needs an injury-free run ideally alongside Saili and Earls. The return of O'Mahony and/or O'Donnell will add appreciably to the strength and turnover ability at the breakdown as indeed will Oliver too given the appropriate game time. Somehow we suspect it might not be an area short on coaching expertise.

The segment most in need of addressing is midfield and by that I mean both centres as well as out-half. Sammy Arnold, Cian Bohane, and Rory Scannell along with Earls and Saili, offer the centre alternatives with Tyler Bleyendaal apparently set to make the playmaking slot his own ahead of the low-on-confidence Ian Keatley.

That midfield conundrum, allied to little obvious impact off the bench, represent the areas most in need of attention for Erasmus.

Rome wasn't built in a day and neither is Limerick seeing reconfiguration in 24 hours now but, as stated, the early signs are good for the men in red...

* * * * *

On Thursday in Dublin former Shels, Luton and Ireland footballer Seamus Dunne passed away. From the Gaelic fields of his beloved Wicklow to Wembley Way, Shay's life embraced a gifted journey through a lifetime in sport.

I got to know Shay really well in the final years of my own playing career at Greystones RFC in the mid-eighties where he became our first-team manager and we became close.

To say he was the consummate gentleman is an understatement. He was modest to a fault. Never but never did he bring up his own sporting prowess or its significance. Always, particularly on away trips, it was left to me to dig.

Shay will be missed by an enormous circle of friends but nowhere more than in the bosom of his family, specifically wife Helen, sons Brendan, Kieran, and Fergus and daughters Deirdre and Nuala. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

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