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The Munster depth chart: Big-name signings and fascinating selection battles

Johann van Graan’s 43-man senior squad looks well set to push on this season.

HAVING EXAMINED THE senior squads of the other three provinces in recent days, we turn finally towards Munster.

Depth will be vital for the campaign ahead, with the 2019/20 season set to be concluded before the 2020/21 campaign begins and with a busy international calendar to be considered too. 

You can check out how the other provinces’ squads are shaping up here:

Connacht

Leinster

Ulster

Below, we take stock of how Johann van Graan’s 43-man Munster senior squad is looking ahead of a busy campaign. 

Included in brackets after each player’s name is their age and number of Munster caps in the format [age, caps]. Players have been listed by number of caps.

Loosehead prop 

Dave Kilcoyne [31, 182]
James Cronin [29, 124]
Jeremy Loughman [24, 38]
Liam O’Connor [25, 26]

peter-omahony-with-stephen-archer-and-james-cronin James Cronin [centre] at Munster training today. Source: Munster Rugby/INPHO

Dave Kilcoyne is the first-choice in this position and some fans feel he should have had more minutes with Ireland in recent years too, with his ball-carrying power remaining an important weapon for Munster.

24-year-old Jeremy Loughman made a real breakthrough last season, earning the man-of-the-match award on his first Champions Cup start against the Ospreys and retaining the number one shirt for the clash with Racing the following week.

However, the experienced Ireland international James Cronin will be determined to move up the pecking order after his recent one-month anti-doping ban and with his injury issues behind him. 

Liam O’Connor, who is well-regarded within the squad, will hope that his own knee injury nightmares are well in the past too.

Hooker

Niall Scannell [28, 103]
Rhys Marshall [27, 69]
Kevin O’Byrne [29, 67]
Diarmuid Barron [21, 7]

Niall Scannell has a point to prove in order to regain his place in the Ireland squad after being excluded from Andy Farrell’s Six Nations group and will hope to show more dynamism around the pitch.

Kiwi hooker Rhys Marshall, who is Irish-qualified, was severely hampered by calf injuries last season, playing just three times in the Pro14 in 2019/20. He will be keen to avoid any such similar setbacks. 

29-year-old Kevin O’Byrne has quietly emerged as a strong player for Munster in recent seasons, marrying an aggressive streak with ever-improving handling skill. Finally, academy graduate Diarmuid Barron has already made seven senior appearances and brings a tough edge.

Tighthead prop 

Stephen Archer [32, 208]
John Ryan [31, 156]
Keynan Knox [21, 8]
Roman Salanoa [22, 0]

rg-snyman-chris-farrell-keynan-knox-and-keith-earls Keynan Knox [centre] at Munster's session in UL. Source: Munster Rugby/INPHO

A fascinating position for Munster for the season ahead. The stalwart pair of John Ryan and Stephen Archer have been in a see-sawing battle for the starting tighthead role in recent years but now have to deal with two promising young guns aiming to take their places.

Ryan was part of Ireland’s World Cup squad last year but wasn’t included for the 2020 Six Nations, while Archer also has Ireland caps on his CV.

The dynamic, mobile upstarts are South Africa native Keynan Knox and Hawaii native Roman Salanoa, both of whom are set to qualify for Ireland under the residency rule this year.

115kg Knox has already made eight senior appearances for Munster, while 123kg Salanoa – a relative late starter in rugby – played for Leinster three times before his summer move to Limerick. Both youngsters are excellent athletes.

Second row

Billy Holland [34, 227]
Jean Kleyn [26, 70]
Fineen Wycherley [22, 39]
Tadhg Beirne [28, 25]
RG Snyman [25, 0]

The signing of World Cup winner RG Snyman looks like have a game-changing effect for Munster, with his physicality, set-piece skills and power in contact rounded out by excellent offloading and passing ability.

Snyman and Jean Kleyn both scrummage on the tighthead side of the second row, with the latter having earned a spot in Ireland’s World Cup last year before a neck injury meant he was unavailable for possible Six Nations selection under Farrell.

Jackal supreme Tadhg Beirne’s 2019/20 campaign was ended early by an ankle injury so he will be eager to establish his status as a key man again. He can also play at blindside flanker and may fill that slot at times. If not, a second row pairing of Beirne – who can call lineouts – and Snyman could be complementary for Munster.

West Cork’s 22-year-old Fineen Wycherley is another option at loosehead lock and brings an abrasive edge for the province as he continues to improve in all aspects of the game.

34-year-old Billy Holland is still an important member of the set-up thanks to his leadership, lineout skills, doggedness, ability to scrummage at tighthead lock, and more. He is determined to win a trophy with Munster before his career ends.

Meanwhile, it would be a shock if the highly-promising Ireland U20 lock Thomas Ahern doesn’t feature for the senior team in the season ahead having underlined his potential earlier this year.

Back row

Tommy O’Donnell [33, 177]
CJ Stander [30, 141]
Peter O’Mahony [30, 133]
Jack O’Donoghue [26, 116]
Chris Cloete [29, 40]
Gavin Coombes [22, 14]
Jack O’Sullivan [21, 7]

damian-de-allende-john-ryan-peter-omahony-gavin-coombes-and-chris-cloete Jack O'Donoghue, Peter O'Mahony, Gavin Coombes, and Chris Cloete are among the back row options. Source: Munster Rugby/INPHO

Ireland number eight CJ Stander’s relentlessness makes him an obvious pick at number eight for Munster whenever available but he and captain Peter O’Mahony will likely have their minutes well managed during the season ahead, as usual.

That said, it will be intriguing to see how Munster select their back row for the biggest games. With Beirne a live option at blindside, O’Mahony could shift into the number seven shirt as has been the case at times in the past.

However, Jack O’Donoghue is coming off a superb season in 2019/20, earning a return to the Ireland squad. With his lineout and maul skills having improved impressively, he offers lots of different skills and is also a possible future Munster captain. 

It’s still a little unclear what O’Donoghue’s ‘best’ position is, or if O’Mahony is an openside, but the reality is that van Graan and co. simply need to select three back row players [plus replacements] who best fit their specific game plan each time they play. 

With that in mind, Chris Cloete’s breakdown threat may be useful, particularly with the refreshed breakdown interpretations, and Munster will challenge him to deliver more consistency and better discipline.

Tommy O’Donnell will be keen to use his experience and work ethic to remain involved in the biggest Munster games, while the younger senior squad back rows – Gavin Coombes and Jack O’Sullivan – will be very keen to impress when given opportunities.

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Coombes could potentially also cover the second row, while there is real excitement about O’Sullivan’s potential after he won his first Champions Cup cap last season. Promising academy back row John Hodnett also got senior exposure earlier this year and will hope for more minutes in 2020/21.

Scrum-half

Conor Murray [31, 137]
Neil Cronin [27, 23]
Nick McCarthy [25, 8]
Craig Casey [21, 7]

31-year-old Conor Murray will be motivated to earn a Lions place next summer. He may not have been at his 2018 heights last season but there is an increasing tendency to overlook his qualities, particularly his strong kicking and excellent defensive work. He will be out to prove a point.

21-year-old Craig Casey is the up-and-coming prospect. Small in size but a vocal and fiery presence, his rapid-fire passing is impressive. Having only made his Champions Cup debut last season, he still has huge amounts to learn but Munster fans are expecting to see him feature extensively.

25-year-old Nick McCarthy will be hoping to improve on a first season with the province that never really got going as he might have hoped. He had four starts after his move from Leinster so will be battling Murray, Casey, and Neil Cronin all the way.

Cronin has delivered for the province when called upon over the last two seasons and offers tactical maturity at scrum-half.

Out-half 

JJ Hanrahan [27, 121]
Joey Carbery [24, 17]

rory-scannell-gavin-coombes-jj-hanrahan-and-stephen-archer JJ Hanrahan [second from right] will likely start the season as Munster's starter at 10. Source: Munster Rugby/INPHO

With Tyler Bleyendaal forced into retirement, Munster come into the season with only two recognised out-halves in their senior squad. With Joey Carbery not due back from injury until September, JJ Hanrahan will likely start the campaign as first-choice number 10, a role he filled in Carbery’s absence last season.

Hanrahan had perhaps his best season ever in 2019/20, is still only 27, and will feel he still has plenty of growth left in his game, although it’s clear that Carbery is the province’s first-choice when fit. The talented Ireland international will be hoping his cruel injury run is at an end when he returns from the latest ankle and wrist issues.

If Carbery does get fully fit and returns to the Ireland fold, Hanrahan will remain a central figure for Munster but will obviously require back-up. 

Inside centre Rory Scannell is another possible option for Munster at out-half, having played there previously, but Year 3 academy man Ben Healy earned his first three senior caps last season including a Champions Cup appearance, showing his potential.

The promising pair of Jake Flannery – who also plays at fullback and made his senior debut last season – and Jack Crowley provide further options in Munster’s academy.

Centre

Rory Scannell [26, 124]
Dan Goggin [25, 58]
Chris Farrell [27, 35]
Alex McHenry [22, 1]
Damian de Allende [28, 0]

The signing of Damian de Allende means Munster now have one of the best midfielders in the sport in their squad and it seems clear that the Springbok will team up with Ireland international Chris Farrell in the centre combination for the biggest games.

However, the ultra-consistent Rory Scannell is likely to remain a key member of the squad at inside centre and will hope that Stephen Larkham’s growing influence can allow him to be the ‘second five eighth’ style player he has always aimed to be.

Dan Goggin has recently undergone ankle surgery but provides a strong option in both midfield positions, with underrated skill levels to match his physicality. 

Alex McHenry steps up from the academy this season having impressed with Cork Con in the AIL and will be eager to add to his single senior cap. Meanwhile, back three players Shane Daly and Keith Earls also provide cover at outside centre.

Back three

Keith Earls [32, 170]
Andrew Conway [29, 124]
Darren Sweetnam [27, 83]
Mike Haley [26, 41]
Calvin Nash [22, 21]
Shane Daly [23, 17]
Liam Coombes [23, 3]
Matt Gallagher [23, 0]

keith-earls Keith Earls is a key man in the backline. Source: Munster Rugby/INPHO

Mike Haley has established himself as Munster’s first-choice fullback since arriving from Sale Sharks in 2018 and won an Ireland cap along the way, but he will face strong competition from new arrival Matt Gallagher.

The Irish-qualified Gallagher has joined from Saracens and brings a more physically powerful game from fullback, although he will have to go on the same journey as Haley – who is currently nursing a calf injury – in being pushed to act as an option at first receiver in phase play.

23-year-old Shane Daly had a promising season with Munster in 2019/20 and can play on the wing or at fullback, meaning the battle for the 15 shirt should be tasty.

Andrew Conway can cover fullback too, of course, but it’s clear that he is seen as a wing, first and foremost, and it could be that he, Keith Earls, and one of Gallagher or Haley will make up the first-choice back three.

The other contenders will be thinking differently. Darren Sweetnam will be hopeful of putting his injury travails well behind him and fulfilling all of his remaining potential, while Daly is ambitious and got a brief Champions Cup debut last season.

22-year-old Calvin Nash – who has a wrist injury at present – is an aggressive and confident option out wide, while academy graduate Liam Coombes is rapid and will be aiming to shift swiftly up the pecking order on the wing.  

Academy:

Dynamic openside John Hodnett, out-half Ben Healy, and fullback/out-half Jake Flannery have already featured for the senior team with Munster and will be among those with strong ambitions of featuring again in 2020/21.

Munster’s Year 3 crop includes the aforementioned Thomas Ahern – who looks sure to be involved in the Pro14 at least – and two promising loosehead props in Josh Wycherley and James French. 

Back three prospects Jonathan Wren and Sean French might have hoped for senior caps before now but will plan to push on this season, while Kerryman Jack Daly and hooker Eoghan Clarke have plenty of talent but also plenty of players in front of them.

Munster fans are very excited about new academy recruit Jack Crowley, who impressed at out-half for Cork Con and the Ireland U20s last season. 

Year 1:

Scott Buckley [hooker]
Alex Kendellen [back row]
Jack Crowley [out-half]

Year 2:

Paddy Kelly [second row]
Eoin O’Connor [second row]
Jake Flannery [out-half/fullback]
John Hodnett [back row]

Year 3:

 Thomas Ahern [second row]
Ben Healy [out-half]
James French [loosehead prop]
Josh Wycherley [loosehead prop]
Sean French [wing/centre]
Jonathan Wren [back three]
Jack Daly [back row]
Eoghan Clarke [hooker]. 

– First published 19.00, 30 July

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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