DONAL LENIHAN: Weighing up the Chris Farrell factor

If Peter O’Mahony goes on to win another 50 caps for Ireland, bar winning the World Cup itself, he will find it difficult to experience a personal moment to match the standing ovation that greeted him when he was replaced by Jordi Murphy against New Zealand recently. Despite being battered, bruised, and totally exhausted at the time, that resonated.

In time, he will reflect fondly on an unscripted response that captured perfectly a selfless contribution to his first win over the All Blacks.

But that memory, special and all as it is, was quickly consigned to history as O’Mahony turned his attention once again to setting the standards in Munster.

With the crucial back-to-back phase of Heineken Champions Cup games against Castres on the horizon, O’Mahony made sure that Munster coach Johann van Graan picked him to start last Friday night’s Guinness PRO14 game against Edinburgh in Cork.

Having been rested by Joe Schmidt for the match against the USA, Munster’s talisman not only wanted a game in the lead up to Europe, he would take personal responsibility to set the tone for the returning international contingent who had been away for a month in camp Ireland.

It helped that the squad he rejoined in Limerick for the first time in five weeks is significantly stronger than the one he left behind with the return to arms of Conor Murray, Conor Oliver, Tyler Bleyendaal, Jaco Taute, and Chris Farrell.

Given Munster’s injury travails in midfield last season when, out of necessity, Rory Scannell and newly capped Sammy Arnold were played to exhaustion by the time the Champions Cup semi-final against Racing 92 came around, Van Graan now has multiple options available when contemplating his most effective midfield partnership.

Farrell hadn’t started for Munster prior to last Friday night’s outing at Musgrave Park since January. In the meantime he played a starring role for Ireland in last season’s Grand Slam campaign when picking up the man-of-the-match accolade in his Six Nations debut against Wales.

On the crest of a wave, a serious knee injury in training prior to the game against Scotland finished his season at a time when he had finally begun to settle into his new surroundings.

Arnold’s elevation to international status against the USA, albeit on the wing, now enables Van Graan to groom a centre pairing from a quartet of internationals alongside Scannell, Taute, and Farrell.

After a brief cameo appearance against Zebre on a quagmire of a pitch in Parma the previous weekend, my main focus of attention watching last Friday night’s PRO14 clash was centered Farrell’s performance.

After eight-and-a-half months of inactivity, I was hoping to see some of the deft touches that marked his progress last season, along with the hope that his serious knee injury wouldn’t hamper the impressive physical attributes he has always carried.

When Farrell first arrived from Grenoble, I was disappointed with his early Munster performances, given all the positive feedback I’d received from people whose opinion I respected and whose close up knowledge of the French Top 14 is better than mine.

Like a lot of new signings trying to prove themselves - I suspect new full back Mike Haley is falling into the same trap - I think Farrell was guilty of trying too hard. Some over ambitious attempts at offloads that simply weren’t on, silly turnovers and a telegraphed intercept pass against Castres at the Stade Pierre-Fabre that could have cost Munster dearly — they were lucky to escape with a 17-17 draw in the end — left you wondering if he was as good as I had been led to believe.

One man who was instrumental in Farrell’s decision to return from France and fight for international recognition was Joe Schmidt who had been tracking his progress for some time. After his highly successful stint as assistant coach with Clermont Auvergne, Schmidt had plenty of trusted eyes down there. All liked what they saw and Schmidt encouraged the Ulster man to throw in his lot with Munster.

Once Schmidt promoted him to the international squad, the coach’s influence was there for all to see in Farrell’s first two tests against Fiji and Argentina in the 2017 November series. When Robbie Henshaw was injured scoring against Italy and with Garry Ringrose already ruled out, Schmidt had no hesitation in starting Farrell against Wales. Once again Schmidt’s judgement proved spot on. Farrell was outstanding.

Despite reaching the penultimate stage of the PRO14 and Champions Cup last season, there was a clear recognition after those contests against Leinster and Racing 92 that, when it came to the real business end of the season, Munster’s attacking game was too predictable and easy to defend against. To seriously compete with the likes of Leinster and Saracens for silverware, that would have to change.

I left Musgrave Park on Friday night with the distinct impression that Farrell may well be the missing link to enable that to happen. For a man so short on game time, he was sensational.

I fully accept that an Edinburgh side short 10 internationals were hardly the litmus test and that far greater challenges lie ahead but the quality and variety that Munster offered in attack, with Farrell at the fulcrum of everything positive, was really encouraging.

For Farrell to last the full 80 minutes, topped and tailed with tries in the 4th and 78th minute, augurs well for the challenges Munster have coming down the track.

The fact that all eight tries were scored by their backs is highly unusual for Munster with Farrell playing a creative or finishing role in most of those.

It helps massively that Munster have also acquired two new and equally influential links in that chain in Tadhg Beirne and Joey Carbery. After two incredibly consistent seasons with the Scarlets, the jury was out as to whether Beirne would continue to reach those heights operating in a different system and set up. Munster need not have worried.

Beirne has an amazing skill set, excellent work rate and a rare ability to read the game and anticipate what’s about to unfold. Carbery too has settled in well and will only get better. His presence and the competition for that coveted No 10 jersey has also resulted in others, most recently JJ Hanrahan and Bill Johnson, stepping up to the plate when afforded the chance. Munster need to capitalize on that over the forthcoming back to back series against Castres.

After a month as productive and rewarding as the Irish side has just experienced, Schmidt would have been excused had he decided to take a well earned weekend off all rugby activities. No chance. Instead he was quietly observing last Friday night’s contest in Cork from a seat in the stand.

I suspect that one of the primary reasons Schmidt choose to travel was to run his trained eye over the returning Farrell with a view to the forthcoming Six Nations campaign. I have no doubt the quality of performance delivered by the former Grenoble midfielder made his return journey to Dublin all the sweeter.

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