For how long can Rowntree make three 10s add up?

Never has a Munster number 10 jersey been so keenly contested
For how long can Rowntree make three 10s add up?

NUMBER ONE 10? Joey Carbery of Munster. Pic: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

It is an impossible situation with no correct answer but Graham Rowntree somehow has to find a solution for accommodating three in-form fly-halves in his Munster set-up.

The head coach has chosen Joey Carbery, his most experienced playmaker, to start tonight’s must-win BKT United Rugby Championship derby at home to Connacht as both sides welcome back their internationals following this month’s Autumn Nations Series.

Another Ireland man, Jack Crowley, will be Carbery’s back-up on the bench a week on from winning his second cap and starting for the first time in the victory over Australia, while Ben Healy will have to watch from the Thomond Park stands having guided his province to victory over a Test-cap-heavy South African XV at Pairc Ui Chaoimh last time out.

With just two wins from seven URC matches this season, league points are essential to keeping alive hopes of making the play-offs, as is achieving some level of consistency of performance at the start of a 10-week block of games that will make or break Rowntree’s debut campaign as the man in charge.

And so who gets the nod to guide Munster through this pivotal moment in the season, with Heineken Champions Cup pool matches at home to Toulouse and away to Northampton Saints looming, is significant as to how the boss and his attack coach Mike Prendergast see the pecking order.

The latter this week underlined the conundrum as he assessed the respective merits of Carbery, Crowley and Healy and signalled the Connacht challenge as the first of two auditions ahead of the European clash when Toulouse return to Limerick on December 11.

“You look at the performances of the three 10s over the last couple of weeks, Jack being a new cap looked very assured in his games against Fiji and Australia, and has been performing well,” Prendergast said. “He's a confident lad that really connects players around him.

“Then obviously you look at Joey and the performance against Fiji, I thought he performed very well up to his injury before he came off. The two boys have been in really good form, and if you look at Ben's performance against South Africa, he was very commanding in terms of his decision making, his kicking.

“It's a good position to be in, we'll see how it evolves and unfolds over the next couple of weeks, but it's certainly very positive going forward and we need to manage it as best we can.” 

Never has a Munster number 10 jersey been so keenly contested and as its most notable former incumbent Ronan O’Gara said on Thursday it looks like a welcome problem for Rowntree.

Carbery’s is a selection which ordinarily would bring assurance to a team and its supporters that a talented player with a terrible injury profile was once again ready for action following a nasty heady injury sustained on international duty with Ireland.

His start against Fiji on November 12, just 11 days past his 27th birthday marked his 37th Test appearance, which represents a considerable amount of experience at the highest level yet due to injury he has played only five times more for Munster since his 2018 move south from Leinster.

Throughout it all, Carbery remained the first choice, although in his absence it was Healy who emerged as the young pretender, to such an extent that JJ Hanrahan exited the stage as the Tipperary-born out-half with a howitzer of a boot showcased his game-management expertise without too many frills.

Healy, 23, has already surpassed Carbery in terms of Munster caps, 46 to 42, if not points (265 to 355) and he was the one who started the season at the helm, only for the more adventurous Crowley to get the nod to tour with Emerging Ireland.

It is Crowey who has not looked back since, that tour to South Africa kick-starting a string of performances for Munster, Ireland A and now the national team that begged the question why supporters in his home province had not seen more of the 22-year-old from Innishannon, County Cork.

A start in the number 15 jersey at Leinster, on the back of a lively cameo there against the Bulls, perhaps suggests the Munster think tank is trying to find ways to integrate more than one 10 on the pitch at once. Carbery too has started at 15 this season, at Connacht, and Prendergast spoke of the positives in the competition the three-way battle had instigated.

“I think it'll push the bar. You know you're under pressure when you've not one, but two guys sitting in behind you. With competitive players, it brings the best out of them.

“We'll see how it goes over the next couple of weeks. We've seen Jack playing in a different position with Joey, and Ben is adaptable as well.

“In terms of how we want to go forward, it's something we'll need to manage, but for me it's having those layers of competition which will drive performance even higher again with them individually.” 

Carbery is first in the hot seat, charged with steering Munster to first derby win of the season following three losses and continuing the momentum gathered from that memorable night at Pairc Ui Chaoimh when Prendergast’s still evolving gameplan revealed itself more completely than in any previous game.

The shackles were off then on a no-lose night of history-making on Leeside but it is up to the fly-halves to further the cause into a more pressurised atmosphere that Connacht will bring to Thomond Park as they look to complete a URC double over their southern rivals this season.

Tonight and next week’s trip to Edinburgh represent fertile ground for one of that trio to make their mark.

MUNSTER: M Haley; C Nash, A Frisch, R Scannell, S Daly; J Carbery, C Casey; J Wycherley, D Barron, R Salanoa; J Kleyn, T Beirne; P O’Mahony - captain, J Hodnett, A Kendellen.

Replacements: N Scannell, J Loughman, J Ryan, E Edogbo, J O’Donoghue, P Patterson, J Crowley, G Coombes.

CONNACHT: J Porch; B Ralston, T Farrell, B Aki, A Wootton; J Carty – captain, C Blade; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; J Murphy, G Thornbury; C Prendergast, C Oliver, J Butler.

Replacements: S Delahunt, P Dooley, J Aungier, N Murray, O Dowling, K Marmion, C Fitzgerald, P Boyle.

Referee: Gianluca Gnecchi (Italy).

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