Horan faces greatest challenge

THEY produced a new video this week, ‘The Miracle Match’ – the full, graphic story of Munster’s amazing Heineken Cup win over Gloucester at Thomond Park in January.

All the obvious heroes are there: Rog, John Kelly, Mossie, Micko and the rest. And then there are the unsung heroes, the grafters who put in so much hard work in order that one of rugby's most famous results could be achieved.

They were all central to the outcome. In the very first scrum, Marcus Horan and his front-row colleagues, Hayes and Sheahan twisted their Gloucester counterparts so severely that they conceded a morale-shattering penalty. Horan's direct opponent was the England and Lions tight head, the Gloucester captain, Phil Vickery. It was the first of several occasions on which Vickery, regarded by many as the finest tight head prop in the business, buckled.

Fast forward to the second half. Gloucester have forced an attacking set piece. Down they go, the scrum wheels irretrievably in the direction of Vickery until it goes 90 degrees. Crucially, it's a Munster put-in. A few minutes later, Gloucester launch a huge kick downfield. Who's under it only Horan. He catches with the assurance of a true footballer, charges into the enemy, recycles in favour of his own side and another red attack is launched.

Here is the man who tomorrow faces the greatest challenge of his young career at Lansdowne Road. For Marcus Horan, it's his first start in the Six Nations, the only one of the 30 in such a situation. Many worry about his capacity to cope with Sylvain Marconnet. His coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, acknowledges the side will miss Reggie Corrigan's leadership qualities, but stresses: "I know Marcus is going to do a fine job. He's been around for a while and is a very good footballer. He is a younger player than Reggie and will have his own job to do, so we may lose out a little in the leadership department. But we have spoken about it and we are aware that other guys are going to have to speak up as well."

Horan hails from Clonlara, a lovely village a few miles from Limerick City in Co Clare. A little further down the R463 lies Killaloe, another delightful spot on the River Shannon that has spawned Keith Wood and Anthony Foley. These guys all products of St Munchins College are not given to inferiority complexes. And quiet and unassuming as he is, neither is Marcus Horan. Clonlara is a hurling stronghold and Marcus wasn't much good with a caman and sliotar. However, he found his sporting niche on arrival at St Munchins.

"I played rugby from U13s and took to it like a duck to water. I really loved it", he stresses. "If ever there was a competition between playing a match, the rugby won out. I tried my hand everywhere including the backs but when you're up at this level you have to concentrate on your own job and let the backs look after their side of it."

Peter Clohessy has been a source of great help to Horan and is a keen admirer. "I'm only keeping this seat warm for Marcus", Peter told me on the return from a European sojourn last year. "He's a terrific prospect."

Horan admits to "frustration at not getting games because Claw was there, although I felt I was pushing him all the way and he was probably playing better because of that.

"I did get few bit starts and then I got thrown in at the deep end against Colomiers. It was a kind of a dream week-end for me. I never dreamt of starting, but Claw pulled out at the last minute so I didn't have time to think about it. It was the first win by any Irish team in France and I got a try. I only realise now how important it was because of how difficult it is to win in France.

"I made a point of sitting in the stand and just watching what Claw was doing. He was so cute. Conserving energy is one way of putting it. But there was also his aggression at rucks and the work he did around the field that people probably didn't see. Then later in his career, he was taking on ball more and that was great to see. He didn't say much but when he did, he taught me to concentrate on the basics first and let things happen after that."

Very few people, including referees, have a clue about what goes on in the front-row, especially if they have never played there. Many rugby followers, indeed, would fail adequately to describe the difference between the task of a loose head and tight head prop might be.

"Loose head literally means that," Marcus attempted to explain. "You are looser, whereas at tight head you have the hooker on one side of you and the opposing loose head on the other and you're bound in. A lot of people would argue tight head is a much tougher position and I think it probably is. There's a different technique involved, indeed, it is completely different. As a loose head, you're competing against one man, as a tight head you've got the hooker and the tight head bearing down on you."

Horan first played for Ireland on the tour of the Americas in 2000 and patience has proved a virtue for a man who is only 25 and, so, quite young for a prop.

"I'll be up against Marconnet whom we remember from Stade Francais", he says. "I've played against enough French teams to know they take their scrummaging very seriously. It's going to be a very physical match, but this Irish team has plenty of confidence after two good wins and a great autumn. I'm working with Tony Darcy in the Irish set-up and Paul McCarthy with Munster has been a great help. We have the use of videos, new things to learn, studying the weaknesses of the opposition, we've done a lot of work in that area and hopefully it will benefit us on Saturday."

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