Munster coach Johann van Graan believes that his squad’s recent contract extensions mean that Munster’s hand will be stronger than ever going into tomorrow’s extremely testing clash with the Scarlets in Llanelli and for the remainder of what promises to be an demanding programme of matches in the PRO14 and the European Champions Cup.
“I have said it before, if players stay it means they are happy and believe in what we are doing,” says van Graan. “Great teams have great depth and I believe you can never rely on two or three players because then you can get an injury. It is great to have the players staying with us at Munster.”
Van Graan has been keeping a particularly close eye on emerging front-row talent. He recently enthused over the return from long-term injury of Liam O’Connor and has now expressed his satisfaction at seeing fellow South African Keynan Knox sign a new three-year deal at the province.
“He has been here for two years now and has really impressed,” says van Graan. “He was so good over the weekend again (for Young Munster v Garryowen in a hard-fought AIL Limerick derby) with his scrummaging. Keynan is such a talent for the future and that is why we decided to offer him three more years. You don’t get quality props in the world very often.
“Sean O’Connor has been coming through the Academy and has been knocking on the door a really long time, hopefully he gets some more game time in the next season.”
You don’t have to be still in or just out of your teens to convince van Graan of your worth within the system. Alby Mathewson, the former All Black scrum-half, is now 33 but has done so well since his arrival early in the season that his short-term deal has been steadily extended, to such an extent that he will remain until at least the end of the season.
“Alby has been good this whole season for us,” maintains van Graan. “He is a key part in our season. It is important that you get balance in your squad. That is why Neilly (Cronin) started the last two games, to give him that opportunity to develop.”
There is now more than a slight concern that Joey Carbery will have recovered from a hamstring injury in time for the European Cup quarter-final against Edinburgh on March 30, making Tyler Bleyendaal’s contract extension even more significant than at first might have been the case.
“Tyler is a key part of our squad, he is such an experienced guy, especially at this part of the season,” says the coach. “You need experience to carry you through and he and Billy (Holland) have done an exceptional job in doing that.”
One of the unsung heroes of the season so far has undoubtedly been full-back Mike Haley. It was never going to be easy for him given that on arrival from Sale Sharks, he was seen as a direct replacement for crowd favourite Simon Zebo. But after what might have been perceived as a slow start, he has settled to become a regular member of the starting XV.
“He is a young guy (24) with a very bright future,” says van Graan. “I think he has found his feet over the past few weeks. He came from England, he came in step by step, we said, ‘listen, don’t look for anything special, just do your job’, and I think he has done it really well over the course of the season.
“He is delivering special moments, the last three weeks I think he was really good, safe under the high ball, making good decisions from the back, running some good lines. He has been with the national team at all their camps so I am sure at some stage when he earns it, he will be picked. That is in the future.
“The only thing that we want is for him to perform at Munster at this stage, but really happy with his form.”