Although forced to accept they will again be without skipper Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara and Conor Murray, and also Keith Earls and Donncha O’Callaghan who were available for the Connacht game, because of the terms of the national management programme, coach Tony McGahan is enthused at the manner in which several of his younger players, including Sean Scanlon, Luke O’Dea, Billy Holland and Paddy Butler, stepped up to the plate against Connacht.
“The side Connacht picked coming here after the narrow defeat by Gloucester meant we were expecting a really tough game and I was delighted with the way the players stuck to their task,” said McGahan, whose side is now one point behind second-placed Ospreys and seven adrift of Leinster. “We have a strong squad and are having a decent run of it for the last six or seven games. With John [Hayes] going out, we had our own motivation and I’m delighted with the way a lot of guys stood up and put in a very decent performance.
“I’m delighted with Sean Scanlon, he’s someone who has come from a training contract last year, he has stuck at it and even though he is still on the same contract and missed an opportunity in early season because of injury, has come back through the A programme, and we were rewarded with a pretty solid display all round.”
The absence of such big names as O’Connell, O’Callaghan, O’Gara, Murray and Earls for the Ulster game doesn’t seem to faze McGahan in the slightest. Referring to the much weakened team that Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin brought to the RDS on Monday, leading inevitably to a heavy defeat, the Munster coach commented that “they will be lying in wait for four points that they have targeted from us so it should be an interesting gam”.
And he is fully confident the youngsters coming through will measure up to the task in Belfast.
“They obviously need the opportunity to do that and we’ve certainly cultivated that over the past four years,” he stressed. “With the squad we’ve had through age profile, those chances were limited but as time goes by and they gather experience, they’re able to put themselves forward and I think we’re seeing that now. Ian Keatley is still a young man and you throw him in the mix along with the Murrays, Zebos, Scanlons, O’Mahonys and so on.”
The situation concerning Tomás O’Leary is a difficult one for McGahan to handle given the way Conor Murray has been operating. O’Leary has done very well in a replacement role during the Heineken Cup and on Monday he looked close to his sharpest, while he also snatched Munster‘s second try.
“Tomás has not had a lot of game time this season but when he’s started, he’s been getting back to where he wants to be and where we want him to be,” said McGahan. “He’s played a really important role for us off the bench in the four Heineken Cup games so far. His try against Connacht was testimony to his work rate.”