How Munster can reap rewards of west Cork rugby revolution

Ireland’s Jake Flannery and Josh Wycherley celebrate after the victory over France in last Friday’s U20 Six Nations clashat Musgrave Park. In addition to weighing in with two tries, Wycherley’s scrummaging was rock-solid, despite a big weight disparity with his opposite number. Picture: Inpho/Ryan Byrne

In the midst of the Six Nations hype, the provincial coaches beaver away with reduced playing resources, trying to keep the ship afloat and a season’s work on track over a series of Guinness PRO14 games which, by and large, pass unnoticed. During this window, Munster defeated the Southern Kings and the Ospreys, but fell to a narrow defeat, away to Scarlets, enabling Glasgow to leapfrog them into a three-point lead at the top of Conference A, with five rounds to play.

With no game until March 23, Munster may have just enjoyed a down week, but it proved a very encouraging, productive, and informative few days for those entrusted with identifying and shaping the next wave of talent to keep the flag flying in the provinces. With so many players from outside the province now starting regularly for Munster, it is vital that a strong core of homegrown talent is coming through the schools, youth, and club systems, in order to maintain that unique provincial identity.

Over a decade ago, when Munster were reviewing the key elements that underpinned the Heineken Cup-winning squads of 2006 and 2008, it was set as a core value that Munster would seek to have 75% of the matchday squad manned by players who learned their trade from within. With the passage of time, that is proving increasingly challenging. Leinster are the only Irish province achieving anywhere near that ratio. It says something for their production line that 18 of the matchday 23 who won the Champions Cup, in Bilbao, last May, were direct products of their system.

The balance featured a highly acceptable roster of three overseas players, in captain, Isa Nacewa, Scott Fardy, and Jamison Gibson-Park, along with Robbie Henshaw and Sean Cronin, products of the Connacht and Munster academies, respectively. After struggling for years for representation on various Irish underage sides, a huge amount of work has gone into rectifying that issue in Munster and is now beginning to bear fruit.

I’m not sure if it had happened before that an Irish backline started with five Munster players, but that was the case in an outstanding win for the U20 side, against France, in Musgrave Park, on Friday night.

While two of the side, in out-half Ben Healy and centre Sean French, started as a result of injuries to regular No 10, Harry Byrne, and captain, David Hawkshaw, both more than justified their elevation with quality performances, on a night when Noel McNamara’s impressive charges captured the Six Nations title, with a tilt at a Grand Slam to come in Wales on Friday night.

Inside Healy, the spirit, energy, and commitment that has proved the hallmark of a gritty squad that won the hearts of the Cork public after their equally brilliant win over tournament favourites, England, in their opening match at the same venue, is encapsulated by Shannon scrum-half, Craig Casey. He was a livewire throughout, with a quality pass, a searing break, and a ferocious appetite for work.

However, it was his terrier-like tackle on last season’s Junior World Cup player of the tournament, Jordan Joseph, that resonated most.

Casey was giving away over seven stone in that physical contest, yet it was the manner in which he tore into Joseph, grabbing his tree-trunk legs and propelling him backward in the tackle, that lifted everyone on the field and in the stadium, in a defiant act.

In the back three, Jonathan Wren’s superb pace and quick feet meant the product of Crosshaven and PBC left his opposite number on the French wing grasping at straws on several occasions, while fullback Shannon’s Jake Flannery, normally an out-half, has enjoyed a strong campaign in his new posting. All these young men have the ingredients to progress through the ranks and make the grade with Munster at the top level.

In a reverse of traditional trends, Munster may only have provided two starters up-front, but both have been ever-presents throughout the tournament and, once again, performed superbly against bigger opponents.

In a very welcome and highly encouraging trend, both learned their trade in west Cork, which is proving a hotbed for emerging talent.

A proud son of Bantry, Josh Wycherley may be somewhat in the shadow of older brother, Fineen, but you get the feeling it won’t be long before both will be sharing a spot in the Munster senior dressing room.

The work rate of the younger Wycherley was immense on Friday, both with ball in hand and in the carrying stakes, but also in defence.

In addition to weighing in with two tries, Wycherley’s scrummaging was rock- solid, despite a big disparity in poundage between him and opposite number, Alex Burin.

On the back of that Irish scrum, No 8, John Hodnett, carried in a manner that would have had CJ Stander nodding in approval from the senior squad’s Shelbourne Hotel base in Dublin. From Rosscarbery, Hodnett played underage rugby with Clonakilty and is another who has enjoyed a stellar Six Nations. He has a big future.

And the next crop from west Cork looks equally promising: Bandon Grammar School were desperately unlucky not to make a first Munster Senior Schools Cup final, when pipped by a point in a classic semi-final tie, against one of the traditional Munster powerhouses, PBC.

Massive work on the rugby front has been done in Bandon in recent years, with the initiative of bringing in top-quality coaches, to work across both the school and Bandon Rugby Club, paying massive dividends. A few seasons ago, Bandon attracted a former three-time French Top 14 winner, in Toulouse backrower Regis Sonnes, and he worked wonders on both fronts. Many of the Bandon Grammar players who excelled in Wednesday’s heartbreaking defeat came under Sonnes’ influence at a young age.

The fruits of his endeavours were there for all to see, especially in the handling, passing, and offloading under pressure of the Bandon players, with a spark of the old French magic sprinkled across a very impressive back line. If Bandon were guilty of anything on the day, it was of playing too much rugby with the game won, leaving the door open for PBC to find an escape. As usual, Pres weren’t found wanting in this regard.

The Bandon half-back pairing of Ciaran Roberts and Jack Crowley was hugely impressive throughout, while their full-back, Soren Minihane, posed a constant attacking threat.

Munster will never be in a position to match the conveyor belt of exciting talent that the Leinster Schools’ Cup churns out on an annual basis, but, having a rich, new source of exciting talent, emerging from a traditional Gaelic football heartland in west Cork, could prove a major boost for Munster.

In addition to Fineen Wycherley, the Coombes cousins, Liam and Gavin, from Skibbereen, are currently in the Munster Academy, all hoping to emulate the deeds of former Academy graduate, Darran Sweetnam. Bantry, Skibbereen, Rosscarbery, Clonakilty, and Bandon all have reason to be proud of their young sporting protégés on an impressive week for west Cork rugby.

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