MUNSTER extended their winning start to the season to a record nine games with an amazing 31-39 triumph over Clermont Auvergne at the Stade Marcel Michelin on Saturday night to bolster the feeling that something special is brewing at the province.
It seems like ages ago, but in fact it was as recent as the 3rd of October that young Tipperary outhalf Ben Healy was sprung from the bench against the Scarlets on the opening weekend of the Pro14 campaign and struck two perfect long-range penalties to steal the game 27-30.
There was a genuine feeling that day that something had clicked at Munster.
All Munster fans were well aware that there was plenty of young talent on the books, who had been instrumental in recent U20 Grand Slam triumphs for Ireland, but that day in Llanelli was the day when it suddenly felt that Munster was THEIR team.
Healy stole the headlines with those late kicks but it was obvious to everyone watching that young Limerick Craig Casey at scrum half was no ordinary nine. Yes, his pass was electric and his box kicks were on the money, but he had energy and presence that suggested that Munster had a player here.
Of course, Healy went and repeated his late heroics against Edinburgh the following weekend, converting a late CJ Stander try to win that one 25-23 at home. Sport is all about momentum and Healy started the ball rolling on those opening weekends and at the moment there is little sign of it halting.
It is difficult to describe just how good Saturday’s win over Clermont was. Nineteen points down after 24 minutes. 4-0 down in terms of tries. A lesser side would have just folded and allowed Clermont put fifty on them.
Munster never panicked though.
That actually must have been a tad unnerving to Clermont in some respects.
There you are battering a team relentlessly, scoring try after try, playing some of the finest rugby this competition is likely to see this year, and yet the opposition keep plugging away, knocking over three pointers when they can, and when the impressive Mike Haley latched onto Peter O’Mahony’s offload around the half hour mark to score, and reduce the deficit to twelve points, there was a genuine feeling that the game was not done.
Of course, the knowledge that Clermont had shipped 38 points the week before when beating the Bristol Bears 51-38 may have been at the back of the Munster player’s minds. They knew the French side could be got at.
Possibly Munster’s main weapon at going after Clermont was at scrum time where debutant Josh Wycherley truly announced himself with a thundering performance in the Munster No. 1 shirt.
The young Bantry man’s direct opponent was Rabah Slimani, a 31 year old with 57 French caps, yet the 21 year old utterly destroyed his opposite number at set piece time. Not only that, but his ferocity in the loose was a sight to behold. It looks like Munster have themselves another young gem there.
Wycherley’s 23 year old brother Fineen got on late on, while their Skibbereen neighbour Gavin Coombes recovered from a poor opening minute to storm into the game, winning one crucial jackal late in the first half near his own line.
These young Munster players are really driving Munster right now, providing invaluable energy to the cause, and it is quite noticeable how experienced players likes Peter O’Mahony and JJ Hanrahan seem to have visibly lifted in performance levels since their emergence.
Clermont away is pretty much as hard as it gets, but Munster’s next challenge is not going to be much easier, as fellow 100 percenters Leinster come to Thomond Park on St. Stephen’s Day.
Given the strict IRFU protocols around managing the playing time of the Irish international players we can expect a lot of the first teamers to sit that one out. Normally, given Leinster’s huge strength in depth that would put Munster at a disadvantage, but arguably not this year.
Munster A beat Leinster A 34-25 last Friday evening with a number of players on both sides likely to face each other again on December 26th. Two other west Cork youngsters played starring roles that night with Jack Crowley running affairs at outhalf, and it would certainly be interesting to see how he would fair in such a huge game. Ben Healy is currently injured and JJ Hanrahan, can’t, and shouldn’t, play every game, so it might be a great chance for van Graan to test yet another of his talented youngsters.
Liam Coombes has looked extremely sharp in any of his outings since the restart and deserves a start. As Munster’s experienced wingers currently are not setting the world on fire it would be wonderful to see another young Cork man grab his opportunity.