What a difference a year makes.
Rewind 12 months and just three Munster players were packing their bags at Carton House after the last November international and returning homeward to the day job with their province. Eight made that same trip earlier this week.
Simon Zebo had joined Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray in the starting selection against Australia. Dave Foley and Felix Jones ran on in the second half while Dave Kilcoyne and Tommy O’Donnell stayed perched on the bench.
Anthony Foley had spoken earlier this season about increasing the Munster representation on the national panel. Doing so would be recognition that they we doing their jobs well and, at the same time, help them do those same jobs better.
Alan Quinlan can only agree.
“When I played with Munster that was one of our goals – to try to help the Munster guys at that particular time to push on for Ireland. Because, if these guys are doing well with Ireland, they’re doing well with Munster and that means you’re playing well. Munster haven’t had great representation the last two or three years because they haven’t been forcing their way in. Leinster have had that success and Ulster have pushed on.
“This isn’t about inter-provincial rivalries and having more guys. I’m sure all the provinces are the same – Connacht would be very proud of Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion and Rodney Ah You – these guys pushing on. It just means you’re doing better when you have Irish guys in. You want to be in a position where you have 10-15 guys pushing to be in that Ireland squad. So, the Munster guys have done really well.”
The return of the eight looks timely given a run of fixtures between tonight’s meeting with Ulster and the visit of Sale to Thomond Park at the end of January which will likely tax Foley and company to the limit.
Squeezed in between those fixtures are the back-to-back games with Clermont Auvergne, a visit to Saracens and PRO12 assignments against Glasgow, Leinster, Connacht and Zebre. The question is whether Munster have the strength-in-depth yet to pull through that period of intense activity on two fronts and still cradle dual ambitions at the end of it.
Quinlan has yet to be convinced.
“On paper, I’d be sceptical about that,” he said at this week’s Ulster Bank League awards. “But, their consistency last year in the league was very impressive. They put themselves in a position from where it was in their own hands to have a home semi-final, they ended up going away to Glasgow. That home semi-final is priority, especially if you are leading the league all year.”
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