MUNSTER face the Dragons at Rodney Parade at 2pm on Sunday afternoon hoping to maintain their perfect 100% start to the new Pro14 campaign.
Four points clear at the top of Conference B after three games, this trip to a struggling Dragons side in Newport gives Munster the opportunity to really drive home their advantage in the Conference table.
The Welsh side have only a 26-18 victory over Zebre, from Round 2, to boast about to date, with this win being sandwiched in between two heavy defeats to Leinster and Ulster. Obviously, being at home should give the Dragons a better chance of getting a result, but Munster will be confident of securing another victory, even without their international players, given their performances to date.
There have been huge positives in the campaign for Munster so far. In last year’s league campaign Munster were accused of regularly deploying extremely conservative game plans, and indeed the stats would back this up.
For example, last year Munster achieved on average only six offloads per game, whereas on Monday night that number jumped to 17, with the brilliant try being scored by JJ Hanrahan late on, to finish off the game, being a wonderful example of this exciting attacking style that Munster fans will be hoping they see more of.
Hanrahan instigated the move himself, releasing Damian de Allande, who beautifully offloaded to his supporting winger Darren Sweetnam, who in turn offloaded to Rory Scannell, and the Dolphin man popped a lovely left-hand offload to the looping Hanrahan to score under the posts.
The Irish rugby public are finally starting to wake up to the ball carrying monster that is Gavin Coombes. Irish rugby loves a good prodigy, and many a rugby career has been built in this country around the hype machine surrounding a successful schools career, but the Skibbereen man managed to come through the underage system without his name being bandied about too much.
His ability to play No. 8, blindside and lock probably has probably gone against him, as utility players can often find themselves struggling to break into starting 15s. Well he is being noticed now, and his ability to get over the gainline, and especially his good habit of crashing over from close range should ensure that it will be increasingly difficult for Johann van Graan to keep him out of the starting side for big games.
It just seems a matter of what jersey he will wear in the long term.
One of the few negatives in the opening games has been the manner in which the Munster midfield has been splintered at times. Overall eighteen tackles were missed by the entire Munster side on Monday night against Cardiff, but the main damage was inflicted right down the middle.
A few weeks ago Edinburgh’s Mark Bennett gave young Munster centre Alex McHenry a rude awakening at this level, even if Munster took the points that night, and on Monday night Cardiff’s southern hemisphere centre pairing of Rey Le-Loo and Willis Haloholo ensured that Rory Scannell had a torrid evening, with three tries coming from down the inside centre channel.
World Cup winner Damian de Allende was Munster’s marquee signing this year and with the Irish internationals away for the next few weeks, you would expect Johann van Graan to be leaning a little more heavily on his fellow countryman. However, on Monday night the decision was made to rest de Allende.
Despite Chris Farrell and Keith Earls both being marked absent, the decision was made to keep de Allende in reserve, with Scannell partnering Dan Goggin.
Of course, squad rotation is important, and every player is not going to play every game, but it is worth noting that one of the main reasons for Leinster’s success in recent years has been the presence of the likes of Isa Nacewa and Scott Fardy in the side, to provide leadership, when the main Irish players are away on Ireland duty.
Naturally, Munster cannot flog an asset like De Allende to death, but there is a balance in terms of squad rotation and ensuring that Munster take total control of Conference B. In any event, the injury picked up by Dan Goggin on Monday night should ensure that de Allende does not get too many nights off in the coming weeks.
The in-form young outhalf Ben Healy looked a doubt for Sunday, as he hobbled off with an ankle injury, but van Graan should really reward the likes of Coombes and Craig Casey with more gametime, as Munster look to maintain their perfect start to the season this Sunday.