Dowling on guard as French rival looms large

VILIMONI DELASAU, Montauban winger, 1.90m (6’3”), 102kg (16st); the name may not mean much to you but rest-assured that the big speedster from the Pacific Islands has featured strongly in the thinking of Ian Dowling this week.

He has faced Delasau before: last year in Thomond Park when the giant Fijian 7s expert was with Clermont-Auvergne, but that was somewhat different.

On that occasion the inexperienced French club sent over a mostly second-string side to Limerick ! and were duly hammered 36-13. Neither Dowling nor Vilimoni got on the scoresheet, but Delz (the Fijian’s nickname) did see yellow, which led directly to Munster’s first try, Ronan O’Gara taking advantage of a loss of concentration in the Clermont ranks as they protested the sin-binning to give Shaun Payne an easy touchdown in the corner.

Montauban are as inexperienced on this stage as Clermont were last year, but they will surely not make the same miscalculation, and recent signing Delasau is certain to figure in a powerful starting XV. Food for thought then, for Ian Dowling.

Thing is though, Delasau also has a lot on his plate, much more than this time last year. Back then the Munster back three comprised Shaun Payne, an emergency choice brought back from his stint as manager, with Dowling on the left wing and rugby league convert Brian Carney on the right. Not too shabby, admittedly, and both Payne and Carney got on the scoresheet with a try apiece.

This year, however, you’ve got Keith Earls at fullback, Dowling still on the left, and Doug Howlett on the right. Earls is probably the most exciting back to hit the Irish scene since Brian O’Driscoll, and Howlett is, of course, the top All-Black try-scorer of all time.

Exciting? You could say that — Dowling certainly does.

“It’s fantastic, with Dougie in there, Keith the new kid on the block, an exciting player and a real crowd-pleaser. He’s going brilliantly at the moment, and with Dougie alongside us it’s a great chance to learn things and improve even more as a player.

“From my own point of view the more I get to play with the boys, the more I get used to them, learn to be a bit more proactive rather than being reactive, know what the boys are capable of, what they’re likely to do when we’re in a particular situation. Munster at the minute is a great place to be.”

When did you ever think you’d hear a Munster winger saying that? And yet it’s the truth, very much the truth. New head coach Tony McGahan — already involved as an assistant to Declan Kidney in last year’s all-conquering season — has brought new thinking to the province, but the new experimental laws designed to speed up the game have also played a part.

Now the men in red are flying, really flying. An unbeaten start to the season has seen them turn over Leinster and Glasgow in recent weeks, and while the former may have been the bigger scalp, last Saturday evening’s Thomond Park win over the Scots was as impressive as any. The first competitive match for Munster in the newly-revamped stadium, Glasgow had won five of the previous six meetings. On the night, with Earls and Howlett magnificent, Anthony Horgan equally so on the other wing (one absolutely superb try-saving cover tackle), the bogey was well and truly laid to rest. Where was Ian? Dropped? Rested? Even he doesn’t know.

“I don’t, to be honest, it’s all part of Tony’s rotation policy. He’s trying to involve as many players as he can which is great, I think he’s used around 30 players already this season which just shows the strength in depth there is in the squad at the moment.”

His hand has been forced a little by the new rules but the straight-talking Aussie (when was the last time you heard the coach of an Irish team say, straight out, that they were targeting five points in a Heineken Cup match?) has also been instrumental in Munster’s new, more adventurous style of play, though always, says Ian, aware of the limits.

“Just a couple of new little changes that Tony has introduced, adding to the foundations that were already in place. He knows from having been here for a couple of years what works well for Munster, he just tweaked a couple of things.

“The biggest thing is that we didn’t go stale after winning the Heineken Cup last year. Since Tony has come, he’s really challenging players, everyone wants to do their best and succeed, and I suppose that’s the main thing.”

With that backline now in place, they can really go for it, go for it often, go for it with confidence. With a back three of Earls, Dowling, Howlett; with the two magnificent Kiwis, Rua Tipoki and Lifeimi Mafi in the centre; with an outstanding half-back pairing this Friday evening of Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara laying the table; they are a match for anyone. And there’s quality backup there also, strikers like Horgan and Barry Murphy, back to full fitness and raring to go. So then, Vilimoni Delasau, even as Ian Dowling and his team mates ready themselves for the undoubted threat you pose, be warned — you too need to be prepared. These guys are the real deal.

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