The Munster Rugby Twitter account delivered a thing of beauty the other day as it posted a behind-the-posts view of the winning entry in the PRO14 Try of the Season competition. In slow motion.
Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder but you would be hard-pressed to find a rugby supporter of any hue failing to appreciate that virtue in the score constructed by those men in red and finished by JJ Hanrahan.
It came against Cardiff Blues at Thomond Park on a Monday night in October in a move begun by Jean Kleyn shuddering into contact just outside the 22 and saw the ball move with what looked like effortless flow through the hands of scrum-half Craig Casey, hooker Rhys Marshall, and eventual try-scorer Hanrahan. The fly-half moves it onto Damian de Allende who dispatches the first of three brilliantly executed offloads, from the Springbok centre to Darren Sweetnam, onto to Rory Scannell, and then once more to Hanrahan to score behind the posts.
One more time ｉｎ ｓｌｏ－ｍｏ ❤️@JJHanrahan's @eirSport #GuinnessPRO14 Try of the Season with a combined assist from...@CraigCasey9, Rhys Marshall, @Doogz, @D93Sweets & @Scannell_Rory12 👏 👏 👏#Awards2021 #SUAF 🔴— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) April 15, 2021
Wonderful stuff, expertly captured, and a joy to watch, it would have had Simon Zebo purring at the possibilities confronting him on his return from Paris to work with senior coach Stephen Larkham and a Munster backline now capable of producing such works of rugby art to equal anything he put together as part of Racing 92’s galactico collective.
Just three weeks ago as Munster huffed, puffed, and failed to fire under immense pressure applied by Leinster in the PRO14 final, one wondered whether there was a willingness to go full bore with that style of play being promoted by Larkham. The conditions did not suit that wide-wide game on a wet and windy March afternoon at the RDS but it was the inability to throw, never mind land a punch on their opponents that hinted at Johann van Graan’s side having hit their ceiling when it came to the business end of a season.
The following week’s outing, at home to Toulouse in the Heineken Champions Cup round of 16 knockout match, also ended in defeat but in the Limerick sunshine there was ambition and attacking intent that allayed such fears and convinced many that this was the way Munster must press on in their bid to cross the Rubicon and finally land some silverware.
It seems to have convinced Zebo, who at 31 will be arriving back at his native province on a reduced salary in the hope and conviction he can regain not only his place in the Munster back three but also an Ireland jersey.
The deal to bring the Corkman home has been understandably well received and the experience and knowledge acquired from three seasons in the French Top14 will go a long way to offsetting the loss of Hanrahan to Clermont at the end of this season when Munster will also wave goodbye and good luck to the departing forward trio of Billy Holland, CJ Stander, and Tommy O’Donnell, whose retirement was announced this week.
It means the loss of more than 720 Munster caps between that quartet and hands another challenge for Zebo to meet. While supporters will rightly delight in seeing him back in a Munster jersey and bringing his trademark exuberance and maverick sensibility onto the pitch, he will also be required to deliver on the senior status he will assume in a young up-and-coming squad, some of whom he will be keeping sidelined if his re-signing turns out to be the success it is hoped.
The upsides are numerous unless you are Shane Daly, Calvin Nash, Liam Coombes, last summer’s back-three signing from Saracens Matt Gallagher, or even first-choice full-back Mike Haley, currently playing his best rugby since joining from Sale Sharks and with the ink barely dry on his own two-year contract extension.
It may lead to some head-scratching in terms of selection, just as Leinster’s capture of a Test-quality tighthead prop in Samoa’s Michael Ala’alatoa this week surely will, but that can give way to a realisation that such signings add to their new province’s strength and depth and will hopefully light a fire under those who stand to lose most by their arrivals.
Zebo will need to provide not only leadership but also an incentive to positional rivals to up their games and advice to less-experienced squad members, just as Keith Earls, only two years his senior, does while operating at the top of his game.
Zebo will be joining a Munster squad and coaching ticket much better placed to benefit from his talents and while it will make for an interesting dressing-room dynamic, the mutual benefits to those around him can be just as appealing.