CHARLIE MULQUEEN: Munster can’t afford to let a man of Ryan’s class go

Munster supporters watching Donnacha Ryan’s man of the match performance and Sean Cronin making a massive impact off the bench in Ireland’s victory over Scotland must have been wondering why the former is being closely linked with Leinster for next season and the latter is already one of the boys in blue.

Given Donncha O’Callaghan celebrates his 33rd birthday in 11 days, Paul O’Connell reaches the same mark on October 20 next and time may be called on Mick O’Driscoll’s career at the end of the current campaign, allowing Ryan go when he is reaching his peak sounds like utter folly.

True, O’Callaghan and O’Connell are far from spent forces and Ian Nagle and Dave O’Callaghan must be afforded the opportunity to come through. But Ryan, 29 next December, is a man both for the present and the future. Not alone has he developed into asecond-row forward of the highest class, he is versatile enough to fill in adequately at number six.

He has done outstandingly well for Munster in the absence of the injured Denis Leamy, David Wallace and Niall Ronan and may be on the blindside of the back-row again before the season is out depending on O’Connell’s availability. You would expect Munster to do everything necessary to hold on to one of their most valuable assets but there are clearly sources close to the situation who believe he is on his way to Leinster.

Such a development would bitterly disappoint Munster fans already wondering why his native province allowed Sean Cronin to slip through their hands once he decided to leave Connacht. The silence emanating from the Munster camp concerning Jerry Flannery’s future is ominous and while there is a decent back-up team at number two in Damien Varley, Denis Fogarty and Mike Sherry, Cronin brings something extra to the table and is improving with every outing.

Rory Best’s outstanding contribution both as hooker and captain against Scotland and the manner in which the side as a whole overcame the absence of Brian O’Driscoll, Conor Murray, Paul O’Connell and Sean O’Brien demonstrated that Declan Kidney need not have feared picking Eoin Reddan, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony.

Irish rugby now waits with massive interest to see if Kidney will recall O’Brien at seven or retain O’Mahony, who made such a splendid Six Nations debut. There are sound reasons for the inclusion of both men and that could happen with the coach sure to consider playing O’Brien at eight in place of Jamie Heaslip who has not been producing the kind of form of the past few seasons.

Otherwise, Kidney will look at first centre where Gordon D’Arcy’s hands have let him down in his last two outings. Fergus McFadden is obviously the man in waiting and took his try scoring opportunity extremely well.

Meanwhile, Munster returned home from Italy a chastened bunch on Sunday night after a shock defeat by bottom of the table Aironi in the Pro12 League. A late converted try salvaged a bonus point and they remain on course for a home semi-final.

The silver lining was the return to action of David Wallace for his first game since last August. The injuries to Wallace, Denis Leamy and Niall Ronan forced the coach to patch up the back-row. Donnacha Ryan filled in at six in a couple of the Heineken Cup games and has done well but will be required for second-row action against Leinster and Ulster in the Pro 12 and Heineken Cup over the first two weekends in April should Paul O’Connell not have recovered from his knee injury.

Wallace acknowledged he is still far from match fit and isn’t getting ahead of himself but Tony McGahan will be happy to have a player of his experience for the big tests ahead.


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