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'Ben Healy is Dan Carter-ish; Craig Casey is The Real McCoy'

Munster’s new kids on the block face a French exam today in Clermont but Eddie O’Sullivan and Marcus Horan believe they can pass it.

Image: Craig Watson/INPHO

FIRST THINGS FIRST, there is the Ben Healy/Scotland issue. Glasgow want him; Munster can’t even begin to consider losing him. Big problem, easy solution as far as Eddie O’Sullivan is concerned. “This really is quite simple,” the former Ireland coach says. “If he is good enough, you back the kid. Make him your No1 out-half, pick him to start the big games such as last week’s Champions Cup tie against Harlequins, then pay him the money he is worth. If you don’t think he’s that good, let him go. But don’t mess about if you think he’s up to it. Pick him, play him, pay him.”

It seems such an unlikely chain of events. For years, Munster fans have been scanning the conveyor belts, crying out for the chance to stamp a quality mark on their own produce. Since Ronan O’Gara retired, they’ve fitted the No10 shirt on a couple of ex-Leinster men, liked the look of Joey Carbery in red, but weren’t as keen on the sight of him in a cast.

And then they discovered Ben Healy. On the opening weekend of this season, Johann van Graan put him in against Scarlets and watched him nail the winning kick. A week later, he produced the same magic trick against Edinburgh. You don’t have to sell a show like this to your public. Home-grown heroes have always been the central characters in the province’s story. Here was a new author writing the draft of another chapter.

Better again, he has company. There’s Craig Casey, the devastatingly quick scrum-half, small in stature, oversized in terms of character. Then there is Gavin Coombes, the flanker who scored against Harlequins last weekend, his seventh try in his last six games. And that is before we mention Josh Wycherley. It’s one thing making your European debut at 21, it’s another to do it as a loosehead. “That’s a little bit special,” says Marcus Horan, who knows a thing or two about going into front-row battles in a Munster shirt.

josh-wycherley Josh Wycherley's breakthrough at 21 has impressed Marcus Horan. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Josh is similar to myself in many ways,” Horan, a veteran of 224 Munster games, says. “Like he is not the biggest guy, so he is constantly battling above his weight. And if there is one thing I know, it is when you are coming up against guys who are a lot bigger than you, you have to fight that bit more for things. Let’s face it, that is not a bad trait to have.”

Unearthing home-grown talent has always been a Munster trait; it’s just that once there was a stream, recently that slowed to a trickle. Worse again, the neighbour next door had it sussed, delivering Garry Ringrose from their academy one year; Josh van der Flier the next; then Dan Leavy, James Ryan, Caelan Doris and at least a dozen others who’d easily be stars in the rival provinces.

The fall-out was predictable. If they can do it, why can’t we?

Suddenly it looks like they are. Casey, Wycherley and Healy are 21, Coombes and Shane Daly are 23. Two of them made their Champions Cup debut last weekend, Wycherley stepping up from the bench to get his first European start today (v Clermont, 5.30pm, (BT Sport). These graduation ceremonies in 2020 remind you of the ‘90s and early noughties when a group of young fellas called Stringer, O’Gara, Horan, Wallace and O’Callaghan emerged.  

gavin-coombes-passes-to-craig-casey Coombes passes to Casey - both players have made a huge impact. Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

“The similarities with us are obvious,” says Horan. “These young lads are coming through together and that makes it easier, because when you see your mate getting on the field, as soon as that happens, you want a piece for yourself. So you push yourself that bit harder.

“Munster need this. In some ways, this group of Munster players are in the shadow of Leinster, not the Munster of old. But the beauty of these young players coming through is that they have no baggage. Losing semi-finals to Leinster isn’t something they’ve experienced. Instead, they have all had success as Under 20s with Ireland. They know no fear. We definitely could be on the cusp of a new era – but we need one or two more to come through.”

Just as significantly, they need to make sure one in particular does not escape. “It’s still too early to make a definitive judgement on Healy,” says former Ireland coach, O’Sullivan. “Still, I like what I’ve seen so far. Great players always give the impression they have time on the ball and Healy has given us glimpses of that. He’s almost Dan Carter-ish in terms of his style, which seems quite lazy, but is actually a sign of a really clever player in the way he gives himself space. To be able to do that requires the ability to take up smart positions. Yeah, I like the look of him.”

Not as much as he likes Casey. “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that he is the real McCoy,” says O’Sullivan. “He probably brings more energy to the pitch than Conor Murray, is a super little player, a good passer, good tackler, unafraid to make a break or two. 

“The other thing about him is his personality, and you need plenty of that when you play scrum-half. Really you have to believe you are the best player on the field. That often leads to you showing bravado. If I was his coach, I certainly wouldn’t be telling him to rein that in, but I would be making sure he understood how to use that pluckiness to his advantage. There is a subtle difference.”

That’s saying something. The stories from Munster’s UL training field is that Casey is a shouter, not shy in bossing senior internationals around. “They like that from a scrum-half,” says Horan.

They used to get this sort of commentary from Stringer. And if they couldn’t hear his voice, they certainly got O’Gara’s. John Hayes was quieter, a late developer but another who emerged at the end of the ‘90s to help turn Munster from underachievers into winners.

He too sees the parallels between then and now, remembering the wins over Saracens and 1999 Heineken Cup finalists, Colomiers, that injected belief into the entire team. “You go step by step,” he says. Horan agrees. “Don’t obsess about how long it is since there was a trophy; stay in the present.”

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Back in the distant past, there were so many games similar to today’s one with Clermont, that 1999/2000 campaign seeing Munster win in France against Colomiers and Toulouse, and in London, against Saracens. “Those wins changed me,” Hayes says. “Woody and Claw (Keith Wood and Peter Clohessy) were my front row partners with Munster and were nailed on starters for Ireland, too. My thinking was, ‘right, we’ve been doing alright in Europe, I’m up for this, I’m good enough to step up’.” 

The secret, O’Sullivan says, is having coaches who are prepared to take the leap and back the kids. “I remember 2000, the selection meetings with Warren (Gatland) and Donal (Lenihan) and the decision to go with the five debutants against Scotland,” he recalls.

“Way back then, that was unheard of in Six Nations terms. But we all sensed they had something about them. Look, you aren’t going to pretend we all thought John (Hayes), ROG (O’Gara), Shaggy (Shane Horgan), (Peter) Stringer or Simon (Easterby) would go onto have the careers they did; but the team was at a low ebb and these guys were doing it in training. Sometimes you just take a punt. You just let the dogs out; release them, place your trust in these young pups. They are young, hungry to prove themselves. Give them a chance.”

Van Graan has heeded that advice. Wycherley, Coombes and Daly start today. So potentially does a new era.

Munster:

15. Mike Haley
14. Keith Earls
13. Chris Farrell
12. Damian de Allende
11. Shane Daly
10. JJ Hanrahan
9 Conor Murray

1. Josh Wycherley
2. Rhys Marshall
3. Stephen Archer
4. Jean Kleyn
5. Tadhg Beirne
6. Gavin Coombes
7. Peter O’Mahony (captain)
8. CJ Stander

Replacements:

16. Kevin O’Byrne
17. Liam O’Connor
18. John Ryan
19. Fineen Wycherley
20. Billy Holland
21. Craig Casey
22. Rory Scannell
23 Jack O’Donoghue

Clermont:

15. Kataro Matsushima
14. Damian Penaud
13. Jean-Pascal Barraque
12. George Moala
11. Aliverti Raka
10. Camille Lopez (captain)
9. Sebastien Bezy

1. Peni Ravai
2. Etienne Fourcade
3. Rabah Slimani
4. Paul Jedrasiak
5. Peceli Yato
6. Judicaël Cancioret
7. Clément Lanen
8. Fritz Lee

Replacements:

16. Adrien Pelissie 

17. Etienne Falgoux
18. Sipili Falatea
19. Thibaud Lanen
20. Edward Annandale
21. Morgan Parra
22. Tim Nanai-Williams
23. Tavite Veredamu

Referee: Matthew Carley [RFU].

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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