KEITH WOOD knows better than most how well Munster can react with their backs to the wall but he still feels it will be “a big ask” for Tony McGahan’s side to win in Perpignan next Sunday.
The two-time European champions eked out a one-point win against the French side last weekend in Limerick but lost the try count 3-0 in what was a far from convincing performance.
“I think it’s a big ask and, unless they improve radically, I don’t think they’ll win,” he said. “If they perform they can win anywhere. That’s always been the key thing about Munster. When they have to perform they do perform.
“Munster players were heavily criticised. They deserve bits of criticism but you can’t take away from them. Dougie Howlett got caught out but he knows how to deal with that and it was fine play from Philip Burger.”
The age profile of some of Munster’s key players has been highlighted and Wood is another to express his concern over the amount of rugby they have played in the last decade.
That said, the long-time Harlequins hooker saw enough last Friday to sow some seeds of optimism ahead of the game at the Stade Aime Giral. Chief among them was Ronan O’Gara’s performance.
“It’s funny, people talked about all the pressure he was under. Johnny Sexton deserved to get the run (with Ireland). It was a question of whether Deccie had the ‘cojones’ to pick him and he did.
“Johnny delivered, which was brilliant, but it’s funny how people think it is the end of Ronan now that Johnny has come up. But that was never true and Ronan responded under pressure.
“He went back to spiral kicking the ball out of hand (last week), which he hadn’t done for a while. He hit the numbers every time, kicked well every time and it was good too to see Earls at 13.
“He’s magic. For me, going forward, I would like to see Brian O’Driscoll at 12 and Earls at 13 and that would mean we would get a few extra years out of O’Driscoll. There’s a lot of interchanging there anyway.”
Wood’s thoughts jumped to and fro between Munster and Ireland throughout the conversation and it was no different when the talk turned to Jerry Flannery’s absence this weekend.
The hooker was due to have surgery on his Achilles heel yesterday and, though there are fears that he will miss the start of the Six Nations, Wood was able to paint a brighter picture yesterday.
“I was talking to Jerry on Monday. He’s hoping the surgery is just a clean-out and hopefully that’s the case. He’s as much a loss in the line-outs as in the scrum. It wasn’t quite what you would have liked (last week).”
With Marcus Horan also sidelined and John Hayes after missing a large chunk of the season through suspension, it will be a tall order for the Munster front row when they renew acquaintances with their Perpignan counterparts.
“It is very hard but we have had no depth in the front row for years,” said Wood who again slipped into ‘Irish’ mode. “We have been poxed lucky. I mean, no injuries at out-half and no injuries at tight-head for ten years. Something like 25-26% of all English Premiership players are injured at any one time and in Ireland it is 6-7%.”
Don’t structures have something to do with that?
“Structures have everything to do with it. I have criticised the IRFU down the years but you could equally pat them on the back when they get something right and they have got this right. They have got the balance right because, with a small playing pool, we need to keep our top players available all of the time.”
With Rory Best already a confirmed absentee for the season, Flannery’s own injury problems are a concern for the national side ahead of the 2010 campaign.
With Bernard Jackman out of favour at Leinster, Connacht’s Sean Cronin appears best positioned to make the step up in the event of a crisis with Leinster’s John Fogarty probably next in line again.
“It’s not doomsday, it just makes things a bit harder. Somebody else has to come in but the important thing is that he’s looked after by his team because, if we’ve a guy who’s not quite at the standard we would like when he comes in, you need to fight tooth and nail for him.”
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