Johan van Graan has challenged Munster’s batch of young and inexperienced scrum-halves to step into the void left by the departing Alby Mathewson and apply the pressure on Conor Murray for the province’s No.9 jersey.
“This is their moment now,” said the Munster head coach yesterday in Cardiff.
Replacing the popular and experienced Mathewson will be a tall order. The 33-year-old excelled during his 15-month stay in Limerick and both player and club would have preferred if IRFU policies had not dictated that the mutually beneficial arrangement should come to an end.
That leaves Nick McCarthy, Craig Casey and Neil Cronin to scramble for the back-up spot through the rest of the season. All three are raw to varying degrees. Casey has played just 16 minutes of pro rugby and Cronin only six minutes in Europe.
McCarthy has played 36 times for Leinster, half-a-dozen of those games coming in Europe, but he has yet to make a mark on Munster after his summer move. The 24-year-old has played only three games to date. Van Graan needs someone to make a leap. And now.
“It’s said every week by most coaches around the world, you need a squad effort to not only compete in competitions but to win rugby games,” he explained. “We emphasise the importance of those eight impact guys every single week because those are the guys who finish the game.
“As an example, our game last weekend against Racing, it’s actually the eight guys who come on and make a difference. You can’t just play one player 80 minutes week-in, week-out. That’s why specifically at nine, the game becomes quicker, more physical demands, you need to make sure that you get fresh legs on.
“It’s certainly imperative from our side that Nick, Craig and Neil make the step up to not only push for the 23, but really push for the number nine jersey. We have pretty good depth in all positions that no-one is too comfortable in the team. We have shown that. The guys who are on form, we have picked.”
Murray’s form is another factor in all of this. Imperious for so long with club, country and with the British and Irish Lions, he has not hit the same heights with anything like the same consistency this last year since recovering from a serious neck injury.
Last weekend wasn’t the first time he has been replaced with a big European game in the melting pot. Van Graan made that switch against Exeter Chiefs last year, for example, but it was still arresting to see Murray come off with 18 minutes to play against the Parisians.
“He has played some good rugby,” said van Graan. “His World Cup game against Scotland was probably his best game and I felt his kicking game has certainly improved over the last few weeks. Conor is a world-class player and he measures himself against his own standards.
“He is our starting nine, he is a Munster man and we back him as one of our world-class players. He has started in all of our big games and we will continue to back him. He wants to be the best in his position and he wants to retain that No.9 jersey in Ireland.”
Who wears the No.10 jersey is another conundrum for Munster right now. JJ Hanrahan gave a superb display against Racing and Tyler Blyendaal has played his part this season but the ongoing absence of Joey Carbery has to be frustrating for all concerned.
Carbery’s first season with the province was hampered by injury after all so having to do without the Ireland player is far from ideal and van Graan again gave no reason to hope that we will see him back in action when asked for another update yesterday.
“The good thing is that he has started a small bit of running now, but he’s not close to team training at this stage. There is no update really. He is progressing bit by bit but I’ve got no update on a potential time-frame for his return on the field.
“Every week he is getting stronger in that ankle. The medical team are working relentlessly with him to better it week by week but no update on a time.”