ANTHONY FOLEY’S MEN open their European campaign in Thomond Park on the 14th of November, much to the excitement of provincial fans. However, the injury toll that has struck the backrow could leave an otherwise commanding side struggling to compete with the forthcoming competition of Stade Francais, Leicester Tigers and Benetton Treviso, whom Munster clash with in the pool stages
Coming into Europe, Munster are in good form as so far in the Pro 12 season they have gotten off to a near perfect start with their only loss in five games coming away to the Scarlets despite the absence of Ireland internationals Donnacha Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell, Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo. Since playing for Munster last May unfortunately, two of such Irish internationals have sustained long-term injuries which will at least see them both miss the group stages of the Champions Cup. These two men happen to be key flankers Peter O’Mahony and Tommy O’Donnell and as a result of the injuries happening in the same position, it has cut the men in red a deeper wound than would have been preferred.
Strength in Depth
Notably though, had such an instance occurred in recent seasons, with backrow options such as James Coughlan, Niall Ronan, Barry O’Mahony, Paddy Butler and Sean Dougall at Rob Penney’s disposal much less would have been thought of this scenario. However, now is Anthony Foley’s time and over the summer and throughout the 2014/2015 campaign he had a job to do to secure the future of important squad members. With Coughlan and Ronan having previously departed, it was crucial for ‘Axel’ to recognize that the remaining backrowers would be instrumental in future times like these. Unfortunately, he established favourites in the first team who were ever present, leaving Dougall, O’Mahony and Butler out in the cold and subsequently, out of the province.
Admittedly in the argument, neither Butler or O’Mahony had ever proved themselves as Champions Cup standard, but plenty of evidence is out there to suggest that Foley’s man management skills from his debut season have come back to bite him as Sean Dougall, a man who scored 5 tries in 10 European games , silenced the then ERC player of the year Steffon Armitage in the 2013 Heineken Cup semi final and provided consistent league performances through his time at the province, departed for a fairer amount of game time with Top 14 side Pau. Still just 25, and seeing Munster in dire straits at the loss of one single openside flanker, such a transfer raises serious questions of the head coach.
Now without O’Donnell or perhaps the openside back-up Peter O’Mahony, Munster cannot boast of a single specialist seven within the squad. Instead, youngster Jack O’Donoghue has had to relocate from number eight to keep Munster’s vacancy occupied during the domestic start to the season. O’Donoghue had been a revelation last year as he proved a try scoring machine and an intelligent force to be reckoned with but unfortunately for both the player and Munster, at openside he has looked quite unnatural against reduced league sides. Based on this alone, it is inevitable that Munster should sign a medical joker backrow for the near future as when Munster must confront the likes of Sergio Parisse or Tom Croft during the group, how O’Donoghue will fair is unconvincing due to his inexperience in the position and on the big stage in general. The young man definitely has a big future ahead of him but right now, it should be in the province’s best interests to get him consistent game time in the league in which he can then stake a claim for the big games, causing a reshuffle in the pack along the way.
On the other hand, there is versatile Leinster academy youngster Jordan Coghlan who has appeared for Munster regularly from the bench to date. From early showings however, it looks as though Coghlan is also well off the mark of European rugby as the former centre has disappeared in games due to his lack of physical presence.
Simply, this means that Munster will not have the sufficient quality at openside flanker, possibly the most important position on the field for the upcoming competition.
Take David Pocock at the World Cup for example and identify how vital he has been for Australia’s success by turning over countless balls and putting them on the front foot both mentally and physically. Without Sean Dougall, the Munster side will miss that instinctive attribute severely but not only because of the absent turnover capabilities that he would bring to the board but because there will now also be a struggle when dealing with opposing poachers, as proven against the Scarlets’ John Barclay.
While Dougall was never the most abrasive ball carrier or biggest, he always offered security, huge tackling effort, an eye for a try and menace at the breakdown. Despite his not so glamorous approach, it’s therefore no wonder why the Irish Examiner among others labelled Munster’s unsung hero as ‘the perfect 7’ during his time at the province.
Highlighting the Mistake
While we’ve now covered the on-field difference that having neither ground-hog Sean Dougall or Peter O’Mahony in the team will have, it’s time to paint a picture for Munster fans as to how the team sheet will look as a result.
Below we have made out the likely Munster backrow for the season and the same three again but just with Sean Dougall replacing Jack O’Donoghue to offer a nice balance.
Of course, another possibility is to move CJ Stander to six and Robin Copeland to eight but should Foley take that option along with playing Jack O’Donoghue at seven, it would be truly shocking as it is effectively leaves three number eights in one backrow, none of which specialize on the ground. However, if Dougall had not been left go, moving CJ to his original spot would suddenly become an option, as the Pau man offers a different element on the openside.
This article is not a ‘what if’ fantasy, in fact it is far from it. Anthony Foley has a lot of questions to answer as Munster find themselves lacking in strength in depth this campaign following a series of irresponsible selection antics which took place last year. To discard the coach’s colossal error, JJ Hanrahan was replaced, but if Dougall and Butler are not, then it will take something remarkable from the province to qualify from their Champions Cup pool and to save Foley’s job in the process.
Lets hope they can pull it off!