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Ronan O'Gara: So who does Munster get to lead them now, Carbery or Crowley?

Munster management has a decision to make on who is the ten to lead the side when the big guns come to town. 
Ronan O'Gara: So who does Munster get to lead them now, Carbery or Crowley?

COMPETITION: Jack Crowley and Joey Carbery of Munster. Pic: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

IT’S five years since Joe Schmidt kindly brought me into Irish camp for a bit of work experience ahead of their tour games in the US. There were a lot of pick-ups from the stint but one of the individuals who stuck with me, who made a lasting impression, was Josh van der Flier.

The Leinster back row wasn’t an established starter then, not even for his province, but he was very inquisitive in a good way. A sponge. He asked smart questions and a lot of them at a time when growth mindset wasn’t even a buzzword. He had a really good manner in the sense that it was plain he desperately wanted to get better. He clearly had deficiencies in his game then, but he has improved now to the point of being anointed World Player of the Year in Monaco last weekend. Van der Flier is the full package.

But he’s not a freak. Antoine Dupont is a freak. For me, there is no one playing the game around the world now with Dupont’s impact. The pocket-sized Toulouse nine is truly head and shoulders above anyone else in the game. And for that, he is more harshly judged when it comes to these individual awards. That’s no reflection on Josh van der Flier. Just like the Leinster and Ireland man, Dupont has been exceptional for France and for Toulouse in the Top 14, where every game takes on a life of its own. He won’t say it, but he’s gutted not be retain the player of the year award. He’s the sort of player who could win it five years in a row.

TOP TABLE: Leinster's Josh van der Flier is tackled by Antoine Dupont of Toulouse. Pic: ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo
TOP TABLE: Leinster's Josh van der Flier is tackled by Antoine Dupont of Toulouse. Pic: ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

His absence through suspension for the visit to Munster in the Heineken Champions Cup on December 11th is a huge game-changer. Neither France, nor Toulouse, are anything like the same when the main man isn’t there. The former La Rochelle swiss army knife, Arthur Retiere is a fine player but he’s no Dupont. There are few people, even at world level, who can materially influence the course of a rugby game like Dupont. Jamison Gibson-Park plays the quick, sniping role exceptionally well for Ireland, but the petit general does it all.

Continuing a tour of diminutive nines, credit too to Ireland’s Craig Casey in identifying for the touch judge last Saturday the last-minute indiscretion of Australia’s Jake Gordon in getting ahead of the ball in the maul at the Aviva Stadium.

Dave Rennie and Laurie Fisher were always going to produce a smart package for the test match and will be enormously frustrated at double-faulting at match point with that penalty. Australia contributed handsomely to making it a dog of a contest – not surprising given their recent W-L record – but the Wallabies defended with quality and put themselves in a position for the match-winning try at 10-13. It was a huge error by Gordon but Casey underlined the oft-overlooked advantage of players knowing the laws of the game.

Not many in the northern hemisphere can say with certainty whether the 20-minute cameo of Aussie winger Mark Nawaqanitawase was a shooting star or his true level but if it was the latter, he has the tools to make a big impression on the game next year and beyond.

Jack Crowley looked nervous early on. Totally understandable. At a minimum, you would say he was solid. For all its progress, rugby remains a game of winning collisions and number tens look so much better on the front foot. He didn’t have that all night in Dublin, but his strides have been sizeable and his immense talent and good attitude means he will progress very quickly.

What he needs now he can’t have - to start another one of those big games. If it’s not a Six Nations, maybe it’s a Champions Cup. When Munster line up versus Toulouse in a fortnight, does he get the start over Joey Carbery? Munster management has a decision to make on who is the ten to lead them.

DECISION TIME: Joey Carbery of Ireland, left, leaves the pitch and is replaced by team-mate Jack Crowley during the Bank of Ireland Nations Series match between Ireland and Fiji at the Aviva Stadium. Pic: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
DECISION TIME: Joey Carbery of Ireland, left, leaves the pitch and is replaced by team-mate Jack Crowley during the Bank of Ireland Nations Series match between Ireland and Fiji at the Aviva Stadium. Pic: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The game’s top two nations, Ireland and France, delivered different types of performance in their wins over Australia and Japan. What is manifestly evident is that because both have got into the welcome habit of winning, they don’t have that fear factor. How can they? Good teams don’t need a loss to remind them why they are so good.

The fascinating game of the Six Nations in 2023 is Round 2 in Dublin in February against the French. There is a very interesting tactical shift going on with the French, derived from the fascination they have with data. It seems very un-France-like to not crave possession and kick the leather off the ball but it would appear they are more and more convinced the more you kick the ball, the more you win test matches. Chase and tackle stuff.

There were moments in the Japan game on Sunday when the messages from the coaching box were clearly overriding the pictures the French players were seeing in front of them on the field. If they had counter-attacked at crucial moments with heads-up rugby, they could have ripped Japan open. 

That’s an intriguing conundrum from a coaching point of view: How can you empower players to play what’s in front of them in the face of overpowering and relevant data? Right now, France seem convinced that kicking it long and letting the opposition deal with it is the way to go. It’s strangely at odds with their rugby heritage.

Not that Fabien Galthie and co have the monopoly on the unusual. England were 6-25 behind against the All Blacks at Twickenham, a side with no previous in terms of blowing nineteen-point leads. And yet, three England tries later, at 25-25, with New Zealand reeling and down Beauden Barrett, the hosts’ Marcus Smith kicked the ball out at the death instead of going for the jugular. 

Even watching it sideways on a phone, it seemed truly bizarre. Really strange and muddled thinking. No-one outside the England set-up can claim to be honestly clued into where Eddie Jones’ project is ten months out from the World Cup. France and Ireland look broadly on course, South Africa had a typically South African autumn with a game massively based on kick pressure. 

The All Blacks won’t be dissatisfied with their tour work and for an hour at Twickenham, looked genuinely impressive. But the February 11th duel in Dublin already has a pivotal feel about it. 

With Dupont orchestrating, France will see it, even at Lansdowne Road, as a 50-50 game. They understand how organised Ireland are, but believe they have a greater power game than Andy Farrell’s men.

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