In normal circumstances we would be reviewing the Champions Cup semi-finals this Wednesday but with the quarter-finals postponed a few weeks ago, Leinster and Ulster are still scratching their heads as to whether their fixtures against Saracens and Toulouse will ever take place.
Munster have no such concerns having failed to emerge from a challenging pool alongside Saracens, Racing 92 and Ospreys. As a consequence there is no point in Johann van Graan looking in the rearview mirror.
Munster’s future is very much in front of them. When rugby does eventually resume, key additions to the squad, confirmed well in advance of the lockdown, offer serious hope that Munster can finally bridge the gap to 2008 when the province last lifted the Heineken Cup.
With the all-conquering Saracens squad now scattering to the four winds as a result of multiple breaches of the Gallagher Premiership salary cap, a serious obstacle to Munster ambitions in two of their last three semi-finals, has been removed.
Leinster are now the clear standard bearers in European rugby. Is the new look Munster squad capable of recapturing former glories having lost all seven Champions Cup semi-finals contested since last winning the trophy?
For the first time in years, I believe they can.
Picture the scene. It’s May 2021. Munster have progressed to yet another semi-final where they face Clermont Auvergne in Bordeaux. Tasked with picking the match day squad, I’m informed that everyone is available for selection.
The thought process goes something like this.
Andrew Conway and Keith Earls are certain starters in my side. The only debate surrounds who wears the No 15 shirt given that, in my opinion, Conway could be even more impactful in that role.
The man in possession at present is Mike Haley. The former Sale Shark took time to settle in Munster but was having a really good season prior to the lockdown. You feel there is more in him, especially in attack.
The other option is to hand Conway the No 15 shirt with a fit again Darren Sweetnam, back in the brilliant form he showed prior to injury last season, starting on the right wing. Sweetnam is prone to making the odd defensive error but his aerial skills compliment Munster’s kicking game brilliantly while his explosive pace has to be considered.
Shane Daly is in the debate after another impressive season while the progress of new signing Matt Gallagher, son of former New Zealand World Cup winner John, who stood out in Saracens colours at Thomond Park last December, will be tracked with interest.
Van Graan has secured a real gem in South African World Cup winner Damian de Allende. He has experience at the very top level, poise, power and most importantly a decent passing game. Defensively he is rock solid and led the powerful Springbok rush defence that performed so well in Japan.
Alongside him Chris Farrell has the capacity to really flourish and become the player he threatened to be with Ireland under Joe Schmidt. Injury has set him back at key points in his Munster career but with the Springbok positioned inside him, Munster finally appear to have a midfield combination with even more potential than either of the pairings that delivered success in 2006 and 2008. Backing up this pair are Rory Scannell and Dan Goggin. The two have always played well in Munster colours but will have to step up to another level to make the starting side.
Ireland’s amazing opening test win over South Africa in Cape Town in 2016 was amongst the many re-runs of games on Sky Sports in recent weeks. Watching it again served to highlight just how good Conor Murray was before his injury setback. He was scoring tries, making breaks, kicking brilliantly and also contributed one vital turnover. Hopefully this prolonged break from the game has allowed the mercurial No 9 to recover fully and offers him the chance to recapture his Lions’ form of 2017. He will have to because in Craig Casey, Munster have another gem in the making at scrum-half. He is ready to make the step up and, at the very least, is poised to pose different questions when introduced off the bench in the big games in the final quarter.
The famed No 10 shirt has been difficult to fill since ROG retired. Many have tried, with varying degrees of success, but no one has fully nailed it. JJ Hanrahan was finally delivering on the undoubted qualities he possesses this season in the absence of the unfortunate Joey Carbery.
Once fully fit, the former Leinster pivot must be given the chance to develop what could be an outstanding partnership with Murray. No side has ever won a Champions Cup without serious quality at half back. If the injury gods play their part, Munster have a duo capable of managing the game and carrying them all the way.
While a quality half back pairing is essential, they will achieve nothing without a mongrel pack in front of them. In the glory days of 2006 and 2008, Munster were driven by what was, in effect, a forward unit capable of delivering a Grand Slam for Ireland in 2009. The challenge for the class of 2021 is to reach those heights.
Dave Kilcoyne is proof that props get better with age. One of the few forwards to emerge from the World Cup with reputation enhanced, he starts at loosehead. James Cronin’s impact has been diluted by injury while Jeremy Loughman has impressed in Cronin’s absence meaning a close call for the bench slot.
On the other side there’s still nothing to separate Stephen Archer and James Ryan. Both are capable of anchoring the scrum at tighthead and were successfully rotated throughout the pool stage of this season’s Champions Cup. This selection comes down to which player is fresher at this point in the season - the GPS stats may be of some use here - and thus more in a position to put in a big 55 minute shift with the other closing out the game.
Having proven a capable understudy to Rory Best at the World Cup, Niall Scannell must have fancied his chances of becoming Ireland’s first choice hooker when the captain retired. It was some shock therefore not to be rated in the top three hookers in the country when Andy Farrell took over.
I’m sure the reasoning behind that selection has been outlined to Scannell but he must have been shattered by that call. The measure of him now is how he reacts and adapts his game in the areas requiring improvement in Farrell’s eyes.
Scannell is a very accomplished set piece practitioner, a very good thrower and a strong scrummager. Clearly Farrell wants more. Scannell needs to be more dominant in the tackle and in broken play. He will come under pressure from Rhys Marshall, who missed a lot of rugby last season, and from Kevin O’Byrne. I have always rated Marshall as a really dynamic hooker but Scannell’s excellent set piece work means he gets to start in a contest that is sure to be ultra physical up front.
Munster have a long history of producing quality, homegrown, locks so having to import a pair of South Africans and a former Leinster academy product in Tadhg Beirne doesn’t reflect well. That said, there’s a player of immense potential and athleticism ready to be unleashed in young Waterford second row Tom Ahern. He was outstanding in Ireland’s U20 Six Nations campaign.
As with De Allende, new signing RG Snyman is an automatic selection for me, with a major debate as to who should start alongside him. Snyman is the real deal, a potent mix of the former Springbok pairing Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha.
Despite standing 6’9” Snyman carries all the athleticism of Matfield and is a very accomplished lineout operator. For such a big man it’s his ability with ball in hand that sets him apart with a skill set up there with All Black Brodie Retallick.
Coupled with that he has the nasty streak which Botha always brought to the party while he also is incredibly physical and effective at the breakdown. Rassie Erasmus employed him as part of his bomb squad off the bench at the World Cup but, in my opinion, he is a better all round lock than Loud de Jager who started ahead of him.
Munster have several interesting options when it comes to selecting his partner. It’s tempting to pair Snyman with fellow South African Jean Kleyn. That would complete an impressive front five. Yet, depending on the opposition Beirne, who also comes into the debate as a No 6, would add even more poaching and athleticism to the overall unit from the second row.
Against a physically powerful and imposing Clermont Auvergne unit, Kleyn looks better suited to start, especially as he is not the kind that makes an impact off the bench. I hadn’t been overly impressed with his workrate when he first arrived but since the World Cup he has improved on that front, playing his best game in a Munster shirt against Saracens in the away defeat last December.
Outside of that trio, Billy Holland’s capacity to organise and call the lineout has been crucial to Munster in recent seasons and brings him into the mix while Fineen Wycherley made big strides this season.
Ahern is ready to take the next step. If I were him, I’d be living in Snyman’s pocket, absorbing every morsel of knowledge, given that their skill sets are similar. Given the emphasis all French clubs place on the scrum, Kleyn edges it to start this game whereas Beirne might start there against a Gallagher Premiership club. Horses for courses with some serious depth available.
With the battle at the breakdown every bit as important as the set piece, selecting a balanced back row, carrying a mix of primary ball winners, poachers, explosive carriers, continuity players and dominant tacklers is a prerequisite for any side hoping to go all the way in Europe.
As the captain and a talismanic figure in the Paul O’Connell mould for this squad, Peter O’Mahony is a definite starter at either No 6 or possibly No 7 where he has featured in the past for Munster and Ireland. CJ Stander is a certainty at No 8.
One of Munster’s most consistent performers all year has been Jack O’Donoghue. Like O’Mahony, he isn’t the prototype groundhog at open side but his impact has been such that he now commands serious consideration for a starting position with Tommy O’Donnell also in the mix.
Arno Botha is in the equation for a bench role while John Hodnett, one of Ireland’s outstanding U20 Grand Slam class from 2019 has, in my opinion, leapfrogged Chris Cloete. Like Ahern, Hodnett and another former U20 star Jack O’Sullivan represent the future. They should replace Botha and Cloete in the senior squad when their contracts expire and need to be fast tracked with more game time when the Guinness PRO14 returns.
Two distinct back row combinations stand out. With Stander cemented in the middle, pairing Beirne and O’Mahony supplements the line out - necessary with Kleyn in the second row - and loads the back row with poaching options. Beirne will also help lessen the carrying load on Stander.
O’Donoghue is a definite in the matchday squad as is Beirne. To succeed in Europe, you have to have serious depth in the back row. Think back to when Munster had to prune three from Anthony Foley, David Wallace, Denis Leamy, Alan Quinlan and Jim Williams in the high flying noughties. With the attrition rate highest in this sector back, Munster is are beginning to build that depth once again with Wycherley also an option at No 6.
This side is capable of making a first final appearance since 2008 but can it win the 2021 Heineken Champions Cup?
MY SELECTION: 15. Andrew Conway; 14. Darren Sweetnam; 13. Chris Farrell; 12. Damian de Allende; 11. Keith Earls; 10. Joey Carbery; 9. Conor Murray; 1. Dave Kilcoyne; 2. Niall Scannell; 3. John Ryan; 4. Jean Kleyn; 5. RG Snyman; 6. Tadhg Beirne; 7. Peter O’Mahony (c); 8. CJ Stander
Replacements: 16. Rhys Marshall; 17. James Cronin; 18. Stephen Archer; 19. Tom Ahern; 20. Jack O’Donoghue; 21. Craig Casey; 22. JJ Hanrahan; 23. Mike Haley.