Holland or Keatley?
That’s one of the big decisions confronting Munster head coach Anthony Foley as he considers his out-half options for Saturday’s vital Guinness Pro 12 game against Connacht at the Galway Sportsground.
Foley surprised many observers when he preferred Johnny Holland to the vastly more experienced Ian Keatley for the recent game against Leinster. The Cork Con man fully justified his selection and duly scored all his side’s points in a 16-13 defeat. However, with some 20 minutes to go, Foley called him ashore and sent Keatley into the heat of battle. The game ended in Leinster’s favour and the coach’s call came in for severe criticism in some quarters.
Foley admitted yesterday that he has thought long and hard on the issue over the intervening days.
“I thought about it afterwards but I didn’t think of it at the time because it was a straightforward decision,” he stated. “We just felt around that stage the lad had done a very good job and it was now time to get someone who was fresher to have a look at it. That was the way we were looking at it.”
“We had already had to make an early substitution putting Robin (Copeland) in the second row. Putting Darren (Sweetnam) onto the back three is akin to taking off your corner forward when you are struggling in midfield in a hurling match. Dave O’Callaghan was limping so I had to hold Jack (O’Donoghue) and I could either take Conor Murray off or Johnny Holland.
“The biggest thing for us to do was to try and get more influence into the 10 spot and I had experience on the bench in that. It seemed straightforward enough. What happens, Ian misses a kick. I have seen Johnny Sexton miss a kick from there against New Zealand, it’s actually a hard kick because there is a corner on the pitch where there is a wind tunnel coming through.
“Ian had made decisions on the pitch that allowed us to get into position to win the game. Unfortunately, not through his actions but by others, we don’t. Is it the right decision? It is if we win the game. It isn’t if you lose the game. Is that a reason not to make a decision? You don’t know.”
And what will that decision be on Saturday?
“It’s something we have to weigh up,” said Foley. “There were a lot of good things in Johnny’s game and there were also a lot of good things in Ian’s game.”
Whichever way he goes, the coach appreciates only too well that the outcome of the game will decide whether the decision is regarded as a success or a failure. Defeat will end his team’s hopes of a place in the Pro12 semi-finals and even participation in next season’s European Champions Cup.
“It is a time of the year when you can shape your future,” he mused. “It is important that you don’t leave that for others to decide. You grab it, go after it yourself. Ultimately you are reliant on the players. The game in the Aviva was one we left behind. We played in the right manner and put ourselves in a position to win the game in the last few minutes. Unfortunately, we didn’t.”
The knowledge that they ended a 29-year hoodoo in Thomond Park at Christmas is sure to boost Connacht’s confidence going into the game.
“You look at the December fixture,” said Foley. “We had the wind with us in the first half, they held onto the ball. I think we ended up with 31% possession in the first half. Second half, we flipped it around, held onto it and played through a lot of phases. At one stage of the game I thought we had them beaten.
“They have a lot of very good players playing regularly and they’re a hard team to beat. They seem to have a massive belief and confidence in the way they play. They are a tough outfit to get across at the moment.”
Ireland second row Donnacha Ryan will take his place in the second row but any likelihood of Peter O’Mahony returning before the end of the season has been ruled out.
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