One man’s setback appears to be an opportunity for a couple of his team-mates as Johnny Sexton’s likely absence from the start of the Six Nations seems to have opened the door for a pair of Munster stars to take centre-stage with Ireland in the coming weeks.
With the veteran fly-half limping out of Leinster’s Heineken Champions Cup rout of Northampton Saints in England at the weekend and into a potential eight-to-10-week lay-off, the chance to be incoming Ireland head coach Andy Farrell’s first number 10 of his tenure could well be within Joey Carbery’s grasp with the Munster playmaker expected to return from his ankle injury by the end of this month.
Furthermore, with Farrell needing to appoint a new captain in the wake of Rory Best’s retirement at the end of Ireland’s World Cup campaign in October, Munster head coach Johann van Graan yesterday said Sexton’s fellow Ireland vice-captain Peter O’Mahony is a viable skipper for the national side.
Ireland kick off their 2020 championship campaign on February 1 at home to Scotland and O’Mahony, set to lead his province into European battle at Saracens this Saturday, would be a good fit to perform a similar role at Test level, Van Graan said yesterday.
“I’m sure Andy has got his plans and I’m very excited for him to take the national team forward,” the Munster boss said. “I certainly think Pete might be one of his candidates and if he selects Pete, Pete has been the captain before.
“He was captain when Ireland beat Australia in Australia and has been the Munster captain for a long time. I’m sure he will do very well. Pete has developed tremendously as a captain and as a player over the last two years and I think he is playing very good rugby.
“I think things that he has targeted like his ball-carrying ability has been really good the last two weeks and he has got influence. A lot of the time he’s a silent leader and his actions speak louder than words. I’ll use the Exeter game of last year.
"He went off with a rib injury against Gloucester and a week later he played 80 minutes against Exeter (in round six), leading this team from the front.
The one thing you can say about Peter O’Mahony is that he turns up every Saturday and he looks someone in the eye and when he speaks the team listens. If he gets selected as Ireland captain he’ll do a great job.
Van Graan has enough on his own plate, that’s for sure, with Saracens this weekend set to recall a number of the World Cup stars from their multinational squad that were rested for the trip to Limerick last weekend.
Mark McCall, their director of rugby, had gambled with a side missing the likes of Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly from the backline, and the forward power of Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, George Kruis, and Billy Vunipola but left Thomond Park with a losing bonus point in a 10-3 defeat.
While that leaves Saracens in third place in Pool 4 on six points having also lost at Racing 92 in round one, McCall knows he can close the five-point deficit on second-placed Munster in just 80 minutes at Allianz Park this Saturday and thus put the defending champions back on course for qualification to the knockout rounds with two rounds to play, with the Irish province needing to visit Racing in Paris in round five.
Needless to say, van Graan needed no reminder of that yesterday as he outlined the size of the challenge awaiting his players in north London.
“To beat Saracens away you need close to the perfect performance,” he said. “They’ve played something like 20 games in Europe in Allianz Park and only lost once, against Clermont in 2017, when they were on a six-game losing streak. They just don’t lose there. They’re a fantastic rugby team, if you want to beat the European champions away you’re going to have to be at your very best.”
As encouraging as Munster’s home victory in stormy weather over Saracens was last Saturday, Van Graan will be looking for improvements from a side that is gathering confidence in its developing attacking style under new senior coach Stephen Larkham but lacked the clinical edge to turn opportunities into points. “Some of the chances we created, the positive is that we created them but it’s frustrating we didn’t finish them,” he said.
Munster, as Van Graan knows only too well, will have to execute better.