FOR over a decade, it seemed as if Munster’s Heineken Cup side picked itself. But not any longer.
Never before has there been so much interest and speculation in the make-up of a Munster side for an opening fixture in the Heineken Cup.
Rob Penney has dropped clues here and there as to what elements of his starting XV might be like for Saturday’s Stade de France showdown with Racing Metro, but several combinations in the side remain a mystery.
A combination of an interrupted build-up to the big game for some key internationals as a result of injury and the IRFU player management programme and the excellent early season form of some young guns means Munster supporters will be guessing on the make-up of the team right up until it is revealed later this week.
Here we consider some of the main selection dilemmas facing Munster coach Penney as he takes charges of Munster for the first time in Europe’s premier club rugby competition.
THE BATTLE FOR NUMBER 10
PENNEY’S selection decision at out-half is perhaps the most eagerly-awaited of all the calls he has to make.
Up until the start of the season, it would have been inconceivable that the Kiwi would opt for anyone other than the vastly experienced Ronan O’Gara at fly-half.
Thirty five-year-old O’Gara has made 103 starts for Munster in the Heineken Cup since making his debut in 1997. During that time he has played in four finals, winning two, and amassing a record tally of 1,298 points.
But O’Gara’s appearances to date this season has been limited to three starts in the PRO12 and one further appearance as a replacement partly as a result of the IRFU Player Management Programme.
In O’Gara’s absence, Ian Keatley has flourished in a Munster backline playing which has added a huge amount of width to its game.
Keatley has made six appearances in the PRO12, four as a starter this term.
The 25-year-old has benefitted from a consistent run of games and such was his impressive level of form that he was selected to start at full-back for one fixture.
Keatley may lack experience compared to O’Gara, but he brings an extra dimension to the 10 slot.
Keatley challenges the gain-line with ball in hand and ties in opposition defenders, ensuring they concentrate on him as an attacking threat with ball in hand rather than simply assuming he will pass it out. He also possesses a dependable pass and is solid defensively.
But O’Gara brings a huge degree of composure. While he may not look for a break as often as Keatley, he is a superb tactician and his kicking from hand and the kicking tee is renowned the world over.
There is a train of thought that Munster are choosing to pass the ball far too often in games and that they would be better advised to opt to put boot to ball more often.
Much was made of how the momentum appeared to swing in Munster’s favour following the introduction of Keatley in Saturday evening’s PRO12 clash with Leinster at the Aviva Stadium.
But to attribute the upturn in Munster’s fortunes over the final quarter of the game to Keatley’s arrivals is too simplistic a view.
Given the nature of Saturday’s challenge - facing a French side on their own turn in a hostile environment - Munster are likely to adopt a more cautious approach during the opening stages of the game. French sides playing at home in the first round of pool games are a notoriously difficult proposition.
For that reason, Penney appears more likely to opt for O’Gara’s experienced head in his starting line-up to face Racing.
But expect Keatley to be sprung from the replacements bench at some stage.
The starting position here which appears easiest to predict is tighthead prop where BJ Botha looks a safe bet to get the nod ahead of Stephen Archer.
Racing Metro are likely to target the Munster scrum early on and Botha’s technical ability and strength should prove invaluable.
At loosehead prop, Penney has a straight choice to make between rising star Dave Kilcoyne and the vastly experienced Marcus Horan as South African Wian du Preez is ruled out through injury.
The fact Kilcoyne has started in the recent marquee fixtures against both Ulster, where he was up against John Afoa, and Leinster where he scrummaged down opposite Mike Ross, indicates how highly rated the Limerickman is by head coach Penney. The former Ardscoil Ris star may well get the nod to start with Horan on the replacements’ bench.
The issue of who will start at hooker appears less clear-cut. Both Damien Varley and Mike Sherry made three starts each this season.
Varley picked up a red card in the defeat to Ospreys and was unfortunate to be sin-binned soon after coming onto the pitch against Leinster. It is difficult to know how much we should read into the fact that Sherry started last week against Leinster when looking for clues as to who will wear the number two shirt this weekend. The uncertainty of Varley’s participation in that game in the early days of the week as he was called to attend a hearing may well have been a factor.
Based on the players’ relative experience at this level, Varley may well be Penney’s choice this weekend in the battle of the Garryowen hookers.
DONNCHA O’Callaghan appears certain to start in the second row. Paul O’Connell’s lack of match fitness, even if he is included in the match squad, means the best he can expect is a place on the replacements’ bench. Billy Holland, who has already started five games in the early rounds of the PRO12, might be a bolter to get an opportunity to start in the second row as Penney could be tempted to deploy Donnacha Ryan in the back-row to bolster this line of the team.
FOR so many seasons, the back-row combination appeared to almost pick itself. Quinlan, Wallace and Foley, followed by Quinlan, Wallace and Leamy. But the landscape has changed dramatically with the retirement of all four players in recent seasons. Donnacha Ryan is a viable option for Penney to consider at number six given the relative lack of experience in this area. The situation is now more acute with confirmation that number eight James Coughlan misses the game through injury.
Given his work-rate and aggression, Ryan could well find himself lining out at six. It is unlikely Penney will risk starting Niall Ronan at seven given his lack of game time as a result of injury. Sean Dougal, who has featured heavily through the opening six weeks of the season, looks a good bet to start on one flank.
Peter O’Mahony is the one player certain to start in the back-row, almost certainly at number eight ahead of the likes of Paddy Butler.
Conor Murray looks sure to be given the number nine jersey. It will be interesting to see who is selected as replacement scrum half. With Munster ‘A’ facing Plymouth Albion in the opening fixture in the B&I Cup also on Saturday, Penney may select Peter Stringer for the trip to Paris, with Duncan Williams starting for the ‘A’ side.
CENTRES COMMAND ATTENTION
The make-up of Munster’s midfield pairing had dominated plenty of the speculation ahead of the team announcement until confirmation this Wednesday that Keith Earls will miss the tie because of a groin injury. Casey Laulala and Keith Earls formed the centre pairing in last weekend’s defeat to Leinster and also for the reverse at the hands of the Ospreys a week earlier.
The Munster coach opted for the Laulala-Downey combination for the first three games of the season while Earls was tied up with the IRFU Player Management Programme. The New Zealander has opted only once to start a pairing of Earls and Downey, for the round four meeting with the Dragons.
Earls absence means Munster’s midfield pairing for the Stade de France fixture will be James Downey at inside centre and Casey Laulala at 13.
Denis Hurley looks a safe bet now to start at full-back, with Earls ruled out of Munster’s squad for the game. Rugby fans will be delighted to hear that Felix Jones is on his way back from injury and is sure to be pushing hard for a starting place in the team in the weeks ahead.
The wing positions look clear cut with team captain Doug Howlett set to fill the right wing berth and Simon Zebo operating on the left.