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This is Munster's best squad in years - but they still need more youth

Munster meet Connacht in the Rainbow Cup tonight.

Healy and Coombes have shone for Munster.
Healy and Coombes have shone for Munster.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

AT FIRST GLANCE, there was little about the team Munster announced yesterday that caught the eye. Nine changes to the side who defeated Ulster last Friday suggests experimentation, that they’re doing a Leinster on it, promoting through the ranks, walking the tightrope between winning games now while planning for the future.

Is that the case? Let’s delve deeper. Of the 23 players Johann van Graan named for tonight’s game against Connacht (kick-off 6pm, eir Sport), only five are aged under 25, while 13 are 29 or older. No better time than now to also point out that seven academy players have made their debuts this season – Thomas Ahern, Jack Crowley, Jack Daly, Seán French, Cian Hurley, Alex Kendellen and Josh Wycherley.

Again, at first glance that appears to be a good total until you scratch beneath the surface. French, Hurley and Kendellen were selected just once; Crowley and Daly just twice as replacements. The latter pair totalled 68 minutes between them.

Wycherley fared better, getting nine appearances, a more than respectable return for a prop, while Ahern made two starts, predictably enough against Benetton and Zebre, the same sides that Daly and Hurley featured against.

josh-wycherley Josh Wycherley in action against Clermont. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

All of them need more exposure. The Rainbow Cup – a competition that has no history and will probably go down in the rugby annals next to the long-forgotten Celtic Cup – was there to be used as a laboratory. Try things out, see what works.

It’s why there is a lot more interest seeing how Matt Gallagher – 24-years-old – gets on tonight (kick-off 6pm, eir Sport), as well as Ben Healy, 21, and Craig Casey, 22, than there is in 35-year-old Billy Holland, 32-year-old John Ryan, 31-year-olds, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander.

We know by now what the 30somethings can do but what we really want to discover is what the Academy kids are capable of. Those from there who have been repeatedly trusted, have delivered, Healy scoring those winning kicks against Scarlets and Edinburgh, Wycherley overcoming a horrible start to play well in the victory over Clermont-Auvergne.

While there is a solid argument to make that players need to earn their stripes; that experienced operators shouldn’t be discriminated against because of the number of candles on their birthday cake, there’s also an alternative case to suggest you can invest in youth and win at the same time.

Healy, the Academy player with the most appearances this season, has proved that.

So has another graduate from the system, Gavin Coombes. He’s 23, has scored 11 tries this season, made 178 carries, 140 tackles and has easily been one of Munster’s best players. Last season he made seven appearances, just one start. Has van Graan got his timing spot on with Coombes? Or did he hold him back too long?

gavin-coombes-is-tackled-by-david-mccann Gavin Coombes has had an excellent year. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

If Healy has been brought along at the correct pace, it is time Craig Casey was allowed cycle without stabilisers. Yes, he has featured in big games this season – Harlequins, Clermont, Toulouse and on three occasions, Leinster – but never for longer than 17 minutes in any of those.

He’ll get a longer stint tonight, as will Healy, Coombes, and 24-year-old Shane Daly, who was brilliant in Munster’s 38-10 win over Ulster last weekend. You can’t say Munster will be considerably weakened by the presence of this young quartet, indeed you can argue they’ll be strengthened by their energy.

More to the point, by handing them starts in an inter-pro, you are future proofing. And Munster need to do so because Stander, Holland and Tommy O’Donnell are retiring; JJ Hanrahan is moving on; Keith Earls and Stephen Archer are 33; Dave Kilcoyne, Murray and Ryan are 32; O’Mahony 31; James Cronin 30; Andrew Conway, Damien de Allende, Tadhg Beirne and Niall Scannell are 29.

You only have to think back to how the great Munster team that won Champions Cups and Pro14s grew old together to get a reminder that the best side in team sport is one that is always under construction. Alex Ferguson got the balance right. Van Graan is getting better at it but still needs to step further across the theoretical chamber away from a conservative selection policy.

As it is, he’s gone with an approach that this tournament is one Munster need to win. And they certainly look capable of doing so, performing well in their comprehensive victories over Leinster and Ulster, doing more than enough to suggest a hat-trick of interpro wins is on the agenda tonight.

Connacht coach, Andy Friend, didn’t pull any punches in his assessment of last week’s defeat to Leinster, pointing out that if they were as passive and inaccurate at the breakdown again this evening then Munster would bully them mercilessly.

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You’d imagine Friend will have worked on correcting these issues at training this week while Ultan Dillane’s return will help even more. But even Dillane’s presence is unlikely to be enough to stop Munster winning. In terms of depth, this is the best squad they’ve had in years and while some of us would like to see them add further to it and invest even heavier in youth, van Graan is the one who has had to listen to the tick-tock sound of the clock moving on.

It is ten years and counting since they last won something. You get the sense he’d fed up being reminded of that.

Munster: Matt Gallagher; Andrew Conway, Dan Goggin, Damian de Allende, Shane Daly; Ben Healy, Craig Casey; James Cronin, Rhys Marshall, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Billy Holland; Gavin Coombes, Peter O’Mahony (C), CJ Stander.

Replacements: Niall Scannell, Dave Kilcoyne, Stephen Archer, Tadhg Beirne, Jack O’Donoghue, Conor Murray, Joey Carbery, Keith Earls.

Connacht: John Porch, Sammy Arnold, Sean O’Brien, Tom Daly (CAPT), Alex Wootton,Conor Fitzgerald, Kieran Marmion, Paddy McAllister, Shane Delahunt, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Niall Murray, Ultan Dillane, Cian Prendergast, Conor Oliver,Abraham Papali’i.

Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Denis Buckley, Finlay Bealham, Eoghan Masterson, Sean Masterson, Caolin Blade, Jack Carty, Peter Sullivan.

Referee: Dan Jones (WRU)

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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