What should Munster fans expect from new signing Mark Chisholm?

The former Wallaby offers a wealth of experience, leadership, work-rate and lineout skills.

IN TRUTH, REPLACING Paul O’Connell is an impossible task.

We don’t need to dive into the numerous qualities of the Ireland captain here, but it goes without saying that the 35-year-old’s departure to Toulon will leave huge gaps in various departments in the Munster squad.

Paul O'Connell with Mark Chisholm Chisholm wins the ball in the air as Australia clash with O'Connell's Ireland in 2006. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

CEO Garrett Fitzgerald and head coach Anthony Foley have turned to Australian veteran Mark Chisholm to compensate for the loss of O’Connell.

The signing looks like a sharp one from the southern province, given that Chisholm’s strengths partly echo those of O’Connell. Indeed, 33-year-old Chisholm was highly sought after in France following Bayonne’s relegation from the Top 14 last season.

The lock brings with him vast experience, including 58 caps for the Wallabies between 2004 and 2011. Chisholm was involved in the 2007 World Cup before cruelly missing out in 2011 with a ruptured ACL.

A Super Rugby title in 2004 was the highlight of Chisholm’s time with the Brumbies, before he eventually moved to Bayonne in France. 78 appearances in the Top 14 followed at the Basque club.

The point here is that the Aussie second row has a depth of experience, such a valued attribute within the coaching fraternity and obviously something that O’Connell’s exit would have deprived Munster of.

With battles against New Zealand, slogs against Toulon and electric contests versus the likes of the Crusaders on his CV, Chisholm has experienced a huge amount in rugby. For teams with ambitions of winning trophies, that matters hugely.

That experience ties in closely with Chisholm’s leadership, another area in which Munster were trimmed when O’Connell accepted Mourad Boudjellal’s offer of a French adventure.

Mark Chisholm tackled by Victor Matfield Source: Sportzpics/INPHO

Chisholm captained the Brumbies the season before leaving for France, while he was eventually appointed club captain in Bayonne after making a huge impression in his first two seasons.

Chisholm often led by example – having admitted in the past that motivational speaking was not his greatest strength – but actions away from the pitch were important too. The fact that he worked towards learning French meant a lot to Bayonne, and it underlines why Chisholm is regarded as a good character by many of his former teammates and coaches.

O’Connell had vacated Munster’s captaincy in recent seasons, but as a leader off and on the pitch his value was immeasurable. Chisholm will fill some of that void.

In terms of his skillset, the ex-Wallaby is known as a lineout specialist. He has run a solid set-piece at Bayonne in recent times and at around 6ft 6ins is a strong catching option himself, with his good agility on the ground also important.

O’Connell’s influence over the Munster and Ireland lineouts is famous, but Chisholm is an intelligent practitioner and thinker in this area too.

The fact that Munster have signed a 33-year-old on a two-year deal may have raised an eyebrow or two – he turns 34 next month – but there is little concern over Chisholm’s athleticism and ability to avoid injuries.

He played 26 times last season for Bayonne – more than O’Connell’s combined total for Munster and Ireland, albeit many of those came at a higher level – and actually started in the back row on nine occasions, wearing both the six and seven jerseys.

Rugby Union - Mark Chisholm File Photo Chisholm was released by Bayonne after their relegation to the Pro D2. Source: PA WIRE

Having been used almost exclusively as a lock by the Brumbies and Australia, this development over the last three seasons speaks volumes of Chisholm’s mobility and work rate.

Furthermore, age has been less of a barrier for second rows in recent times. The likes of Nathan Hines, Jamie Cudmore, Simon Shaw, and even O’Connell himself have demonstrated that in a work-rate position age is not the most important factor.

At 117kg, Chisholm is heavier than O’Connell and his competence in the set-piece will give them a strong option in the tighthead lock position that the Ireland captain occupied at scrum time.

While his ball-carrying is certainly not a weakness, it is in those less heralded elements of second-row play that Chisholm excels. Lineout defence, maul defence, restarts, hitting high numbers of rucks, leeching onto carriers; all of those are Chisholm strengths.

The fact that Chisholm had other offers on the table underlines the fact that Munster have done good business here. At a time when there are not too many second rows on the market, they’ve beaten off competition from France for an excellent player.

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Their two-year offer was certainly helpful, with the likes of Pau and Toulon believed to have put shorter-term deals on the table. And while Munster have certainly had to shell out a fair amount to get their man, the return on their investment should be strong.

The fact that Chisholm is not a current international player is obviously an important part of the signing, ensuring that the Australian’s leadership will be influential when the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Felix Jones and Conor Murray are away with Ireland.

Paul O'Connell and Mark Chisholm O'Connell and Chisholm go head-to-head in 2007. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In the second row, the hoped-for involvement of Dave Foley and Donnacha Ryan with Joe Schmidt’s national squad over the coming two seasons would have left Munster short.

Chisholm’s arrival looks to have solved that issue, as he joins Donncha O’Callaghan, Billy Holland and youngsters like Sean McCarthy and John Madigan in offering up options for head coach Foley.

Of course, Munster could have gone in another direction in their search to find another lock after O’Connell was granted release from the last year of his contract.

Searching out a young, hungry bruiser from New Zealand’s ITM Cup or the Currie Cup in South Africa might have been preferable to some, or perhaps a bigger financial investment in a more established lock from elsewhere.

Those options wouldn’t have provided Munster with the top-ups of experience and leadership that Chisholm does, however. The usual search of the available options ended with Foley’s side content that Chisholm is the man to compensate as best they could for the departure of O’Connell.

Home-grown pair Donnacha Ryan and Dave Foley will have their own ideas about filling the great man’s boots, but the confident Chisholm should take this latest challenge in his stride.

It would be no surprise if his influence is important as Munster look to build on last season’s Pro12 final appearance and break back into the knock-out stages in Europe.

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Murray Kinsella

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