Friday 18 October 2019

Tony Ward: They didn't win but Munster produced the outstanding Champions Cup display of the three Irish provinces


Munster's Joey Carbery. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Munster's Joey Carbery. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

In the Anglo-Irish war of the opening weekend, like most, I felt Leinster at home to Wasps was a banker, and like some I saw Ulster in Belfast against Leicester as a genuine opportunity.

However, I felt even if Chris Cloete were to be at his ruck-scavenging best that for Munster to come back from Devon with even a losing bonus would prove an obstacle too high.

The essential ingredient to compete with one of the two best clubs in the English Premiership (Saracens being the other), and by extension two of the most obvious pretenders to Leinster's European crown, would be a return to a performance that resembled those from days of yore.

Leinster were untouchable in Dublin 4 on Friday night, with Ulster dogged and gutsy in the Kingspan 24 hours on.

However, in between came the outstanding Champions Cup performance of the Irish three, even though they were the only province not to win.

What we got was a Munster side back in the zone, with Peter O'Mahony 'pure mule'.

The captain has had better games in terms of the individual components to his considerable make-up, but for the level-headed leadership he displayed when it was most needed this was up there with Mick Galwey and Paul O'Connell in their pomp.

There is a significantly hard edge to the first-choice pack, with the strength in depth in reserve at least on a par with anything that has gone before.

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At Sandy Park Johann van Graan unleashed replacement forwards James Cronin, Rhys Marshall, John Ryan, Billy Holland and Tommy O'Donnell. That is a formidable line-up and collectively stronger than any Munster bench I can recall.

And if O'Mahony was the leader supreme then Tadhg Beirne wasn't far behind.

The former Scarlets man is already widely accepted as the IRFU's signing of the summer, with Munster the main beneficiary.

He has the potential to develop with Jean Kleyn into a second-row combination akin to O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan.

From Dave Kilcoyne to CJ Stander, who was also superb in Exeter, Munster have a forward unit on a par with any in Europe and yes, that includes Leinster.

The challenge is in matching that behind and here they have some way to go. That said, on Saturday both halves were very good. Duncan Williams did the simple things well, bringing a greater urgency to clearing ruck ball - by hand or foot.

Joey Carbery continues to make progress through small steps. He produced the occasional misjudged kick in difficult conditions but it is already clear that his confidence as an out-and-out, string-pulling 10 is growing.

I would appeal to Van Graan and Joe Schmidt to allow the new Munster out-half to play in every game he possibly can.

Resting him for the sake of resting should not be an option unless the player himself requests a break.

As regards the Ireland head coach and the internationals next month, I don't know how he is going to pick his back five forwards.

The make-up of the back-row is already a logistical nightmare and added to that he must also pair two from James Ryan, Devin Toner, Iain Henderson and Beirne. Rather him than me.

We now have our strongest squad of Test-standard players ever.

Dan Goggin and Rory Scannell showed up well in Exeter and with Chris Farrell still to return to the mix, along with Sam Arnold in reserve, the midfield possibilities are there.

They are defensively solid irrespective of the combination but still way off the standard required in attacking terms if they are to challenge for silverware.

As for Leinster? We'll not lose the run of ourselves just yet and Sunday in Toulouse brings a more realistic challenge, but what was delivered against Wasps was as close to Total Rugby that we've seen from an Irish team at any level.

I know Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster won't thank me for saying that but they demolished the two-time previous winners in every aspect.

The Irish moment of a most encouraging opening weekend was Tadhg Furlong's creative role in Luke McGrath's second try. Brian O'Driscoll eat your heart out.

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