COMPETITION for places will be the lifeblood of Munster’s challenge for Magners League and Heineken Cup honours this season, believes Marcus Horan.
At 33, the Irish international prop may be in the autumn of his career, but rather than preparing to throw in the towel, he is relishing the selection battles ahead.
Horan would be first to admit it has been a tough 12 months during which his career was threatened by serious illness.
It was a year that brought little joy and ultimately bitter disappointment on the field as Munster crashed out of the two major competitions at the semi-final stages to Biarritz and arch rivals Leinster.
In San Sebastian, the Munster scrum struggled against Biarritz, and while Horan disputes certain charges made against them he accepts it was not what it should have been.
“I think we disrupted some of their ball too, and I don’t think things were as bad as people made out,” Horan said. “We were hugely disappointed with our own (scrums), we got poor quality ball, were turned over at times and that was very hard to take. Overall, we have to hold our hands up and say our own scrum wasn’t good enough.”
Horan wonders if he tried to come back too soon after his illness and admitted: “At the tail of the season I felt I was struggling fitness-wise. That’s a thing you learn about, especially because it wasn’t your average injury so you maybe don’t know how to gauge these things. Now I’m just glad to be here preparing for a new season.
“I worked hard at a lot of things (in pre-season) and I’m just mad to play games now. There’s a great buzz around the squad, great competition for places and guys are pushing each other. The feeling is good, that there’s a bit of unfinished business to attend to. That’s always a good sign.”
Horan is aware the competition intensifies when it comes to the front row.
This year he faces challenges from Wian du Preez, Dave Ryan, as well as newcomer Peter Borlase and possibly Darragh Hurley, both tight heads who can play with the number one jersey too.
On the tight side, John Hayes will be trying to stay ahead of Tony Buckley, Borlase, Hurley and Stephen Archer while at hooker, Jerry Flannery has to battle Damien Varley and Denis Fogarty.
Such competition, said Horan, might not have existed before but he is happy, despite the threat to his position: “It’s very important to have it and the way the Magners League has gone, both by expansion of teams and having the extra prop on the bench, it gives guys a chance to have more time on the pitch and a chance to make a name for themselves.
“That’s great for the individual and for everyone because it brings something to training.”
With 167 Munster games, 25 tries and 66 Irish caps to his credit, Horan is determined to stay in the mix, and hopes to add to his international tally, although he has learned to take things one step at a time, not daring to dream of an Ireland World Cup squad place next year.
“Naturally the World Cup would be in the back of everyone’s mind but I’ve come to the stage of my career where I won’t be looking that far ahead. My priority now is at Munster, to try to nail down a place and to play well.
“If that helps me break into the Irish team again it will be great, but I’m under no illusions that I must battle back to a place where I was before. That’s a great challenge to have but it’s a week at a time.”
He is back in the mix, with a place in the bench for tonight’s Magners League clash with Edinburgh, and he hopes Munster can respond to the events of last year at Murrayfield.
Then, he had to sit out last year’s corresponding clash due to that illness and felt as disappointed as Munster did with the 12-7 defeat.
“It’s a match I’m sure the lads feel they should have won, and so we feel we owe them a big one,” he said.
Horan knows that mere talk won’t get Munster over the finish line but he recognises the necessity to be single-minded and disciplined given the pitfalls of playing away from home.
Munster picked up enough yellow cards last year to have them finish near the foot of the Magners League Fair Play competition, something that possibly cost them a home semi-final draw.
“We realise that so many yellow cards stick out a mile and that this would partly have been the cause of not getting results,” Horan said.
“Discipline is a hugely important factor, especially on the road where referees pick up on things; we need to be smarter and more professional.
“Our discipline has been good so far although it will be more a test of character when the games get more intense. We’ll have to keep the heads because we know (a yellow card) doesn’t do anything for the team.”
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