Munster and Irish rugby can’t afford to let O’Mahony leave

In many respects this eagerly awaited contest against traditional European rivals Leicester Tigers represented a new beginning.
Munster and Irish rugby can’t afford to let O’Mahony leave

Johann van Graan became the fourth head coach to lead Munster into Heineken or Champions Cup action in five years, following in the footsteps of Rob Penny, Anthony Foley and Rassie Erasmus.

That level of turnover at the top table since 2012 has to stop and, hopefully, the latest incumbent will preside long enough in the lead role to leave a lasting legacy.

Saturday’s outing also proved a new chapter for two players with the ability to make a serious impact over the next few seasons in Sam Arnold and Chris Cloete, while Alex Wootton’s selection on the right wing at the expense of the recently capped Darren Sweetnam highlights what, to date, has been a dream season for him.

Given his injury woes in midfield, I’m sure van Graan breathed a sigh of relief in advance of this contest that the Leicester centre pairing of Manu Tuilagi and Wallaby playmaker Matt Toomua were both ruled out.

In the end, given how the fledgling partnership of Rory Scannell and Arnold performed, he need not have worried.

From a defensive perspective that pairing were ravenous. The quality of Scannell’s passing is also underrated while their combined work at the breakdown would have done any back rower proud.

Not that they needed to be, given the performance of the trio designated to do that job.

If the IRFU’s director of rugby David Nucifora needed any clarification of what Peter O’Mahony brings to a Munster jersey then this clash yielded the answer.

There is a reason why clubs like Gloucester are prepared to pay big money for the type of leadership he brings to the party.

Munster and Irish rugby have it at present. Not only do they need to recognise it but they must make it a priority to hold onto it. O’Mahony was immense.

Even then his contribution over the 80 minutes was overshadowed by European debutant in Cloete who tormented the visitors from start to finish. His work in the contact area was incredible, whether poaching a turnover on the deck, holding up the opposition ball carrier in an all-embracing choke tackle to win a scrum or in cleaning out opposition bodies at the ruck.

In a matter of weeks, he has won the hearts of the Munster faithful.

Alongside him another South African who has already nailed that respect - CJ Stander. He too has a big decision to make in terms of where his future lies. Montpellier have come calling and with a big Springbok presence there already, he must be tempted. My money says he will stay put as long as the powerbrokers in the IRFU reward his true worth.

Last season Munster registered a record score against the Tigers in European competition when they visited Limerick, winning 38-0, yet failed to back it up in Welford Road the following week.

The lessons from that reversal need to be taken on board for the return fixture on Sunday.

Munster are clearly a superior force to this Leicester outfit, especially up front, and need to show that again next weekend. In their prime, Leicester had a hardnosed forward unit that posed serious problems for all comers and never took a backward step with Martin Johnson front and centre to everything they did. This current crop have nobody fit to lace his boots.

Munster recognised that from the outset and went on to dominate all facets of play with the exception of negating the impact of the visitors’ lineout maul which proved their most potent attacking weapon. If Leicester get an opportunity to exploit that early on next weekend, and get the crowd behind them, Munster will be challenged.

They have a week to calibrate how best to defend that scenario in the sure knowledge Leicester will do everything to manufacture repeat opportunities from the outset. Other than that, the Munster pack were totally dominant and laid the ideal platform for the half-backs to dictate the tempo and direction of this game.

The consistency of performance delivered by Conor Murray this year, be it for Munster, Ireland or the Lions, has been astounding. He is a player on top of his game and very much in control. As a consequence, Ian Keatley is also playing with an assured confidence that shines through everything he is doing.

The duo completely outplayed England’s regular half-back pairing of Ben Youngs and George Ford who, it must be said, were let down by the inability of their forwards to deal with the challenge up front.

What a delight also to see a Munster back three so full of running and a willingness to take on the opposition in the wide channels. Andrew Conway has been sensational all season and one hopes that the horrible collision that resulted in his immediate substitution will not keep him out of action for too long.

When one considers that this Munster backline was shorn three internationals in Keith Earls, Chris Farrell and Jaco Taute and that Sweetnam was deemed surplus to requirements at the outset, you have to hope that Munster are heading in the right direction, with a number of different options and combinations open to van Graan.

In terms of where Munster need to get to, this was a very decent start for van Graan. The fact that Castres also did a number on Racing 92 should also serve to aid Munster’s quest for a quarter-final slot.

That said, next weekend’s visit to the English Midlands is sure to be more taxing but the new man must have extracted sufficient positives from this showing to convince him the ingredients are there to repeat the dose. On that basis, getting the mental preparation right for the return fixture will be far more important than anything else. Munster failed in that regard 12 months and in that respect van Graan has an immediate opportunity to put one over his predecessor. That would mark a very decent start to his Munster journey.

I

t’s a measure of the strength in depth Leinster possess that seven players who featured for Ireland in the recent Guinness November series failed to secure a starting slot in last evening’s key Champions Cup encounter against Exeter Chiefs, despite being available for selection.

Couple that with the injury which keeps Joey Carbery sidelined and the fact Leinster haven’t felt the need to register their impressive new Maori All Black winger James Lowe and you begin to understand just why Leo Cullen’s men harbour serious ambitions to conquer Europe again.

That said, the task facing them against the reigning Aviva Premiership champions at Sandy Park yesterday was monumental.

Anyone suggesting that last year’s ascension to the summit of English rugby was some sort of fluke need only look at the current league table where the Chiefs lead the way by eight points.

The big worry for Cullen entering this game was that many of his players hadn’t played in blue for six weeks and a slow start while finding their feet was likely to play right into Exeter hands.

Cullen need not have worried on that front at least.

Leinster were excellent in the opening quarter, their dominance reflected by the fact that they had two tries disallowed. Exeter appeared slightly shocked by just how good Leinster were but, worryingly, having dominated both territorially and in the possession stakes, a five point lead at the break bore little relation to how comfortable they appeared over the opening 40 minutes.

Inevitably, the Chiefs enjoyed their period of dominance directly after the break. Sean Cronin saw yellow for a high tackle on Jack Nowell that could so easily have yielded a penalty try. Forced to defend a man down within metres of their own line, Leinster’s class and composure in defence came to the fore.

How ironic then that the minute they were restored to a full compliment with Cronin back on board, they conceded a try out wide to the impressive James Short. This is the point, with the teams locked at 8-8, that most Premiership visitors to Sandy Park wilt.

Not Leinster.

Their confidence under pressure bore the hallmark of a champion side, their response even more impressive. They laid siege to the Exeter line and refused to leave without points. The inevitable try from Jack Conan coupled with a conversion and a penalty not only secured the win but, crucially, also denied their hosts a potential losing bonus point.

Six points ahead with two home games to come now places Leinster in an excellent position.

Chances are they could well have the pool won by the time they have to travel to Montpellier in round six at the end of January. Cullen’s men are in good shape.

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