JAMES HART HAS masterminded Top 14 victories, from the scrum-half slot, over a host of top sides this season. The Grenoble scrum-half has enjoyed a break-out season in France and, following a string of match-winning performances, earned himself a three-year contract with the club.
Goal-kicking scrum-halves are the norm, rather than the exception, in France and Hart is tanked as the Top 14′s second best player off the tee. His kicking percentage of just over 80% is higher than the likes of Frederic Michalak, Jonny Sexton and Morné Steyn.
With Munster in the grip of an injury tremble [crisis is too strong a word before Friday's team announcement], talk has turned to Murray’s ability as an emergency out-half. Ian Keatley is fit to play, and will start, against Toulon at Stade Velodrome on Sunday. JJ Hanrahan’s prospects of featuring are not rated as highly. The best Munster coach Rob Penney could say at his Tuesday briefing was the province was the possibility Hanrahan ‘could be in contention later in the week’.
With Munster Academy out-half Jonathan Holland not registered for the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup, Penney will hope to get as much out of Keatley before considering Murray or fellow scrum-half Duncan Williams in his place. Murray, for his part, told TheScore.ie recently that he has been practicing kicks in training all season and has little trepidation about shifting over a spot in the half-back line.
Hart’s Grenoble side defeated Toulon 22-21 at Stade Felix Mayol earlier this season so the scrum-half can testify that the European champions are beatable. He also believes Murray can handle the kicking game but admits the pressure, on Sunday, will be nothing like the Limerick man has ever experienced. He told TheScore.ie:
I’ve heard that Murray has a massive boot and can knock [kicks] over from way out. He’s a natural at kicking out of hand so that part will not phase him. Out-halves are the generals out there but Murray is well used to calling the shots and is a world-class operator.
“He may be knocking them over in training but the pressure on your goal-kicking is a lot more intense in big matches. The occasion can get to the very best players. Munster will be eager to get Hanrahan on the bench to support Keatley but I would not doubt Murray’s big game mentality. It would be the biggest challenge of his career but he’d be up for it.”
Hart was impressed with Munster’s forward pack during their quarter final domination over Toulouse. “The maul did very well form them and lads like Dave Kilcoyne and Dave Foley had good games,” he said. “CJ Stander had a blinder. Munster dominated them up front and opened Toulouse up.”
Of all the Top 14 sides peaking at the right time — in league and cup action — Hart believes Toulon look the most dangerous. “Munster can’t commit too many of their players to rucks [on Sunday] as Toulon are liable to take advantage and cut you to ribbons out wide.
“Matt Giteau directs their backline operations and has dangerous running options to choose from all over the pitch. They went away to Perpignan last week and tore them apart. Toulon’s physicality is their number one weapon so Munster will need to match that if they are to have any hope.”