MUNSTER have the perfect opportunity to pick themselves up off of the floor after the demoralising loss to Leinster last weekend, as they face Conference B bottom side Benetton Treviso this Saturday in Italy.
Given Benetton have an unwanted perfect record of nine losses from nine games this season it would be a huge shock should Munster not take at least four points from the Stadio Comunale di Monigo this weekend, but Sheffield United’s surprising win over Manchester United on Wednesday night is a reminder to us all that nothing can ever be taken for granted when it comes to sport.
This fixture, of course, is a rearranged one, as it was initially scheduled for early November, but had to be called off due to a Covid outbreak within the Benetton squad.
Playing the game this weekend means that Munster go into the fixture shorn their international contingent, as ten players from the province got called up to Andy Farrell’s Six Nations squad.
And while you would expect huge contributions from the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Tadhg Beirne, CJ Stander and Conor Murray, it is hard to imagine Craig Casey and Shane Daly getting game time over the championship. They will, no doubt, benefit from the experience of being in the Ireland camp, but there is also a counter-argument that they would benefit more from playing in Italy rather than holding tackle bags up in Carlton House.
Casey’s call-up means that two of the three scrum-halves within the Ireland squad are Munster players, with Casey and Murray being joined by Leinster’s Jamison Gibson-Park as an option for the number nine shirt.
With Neil Cronin on the long-term injury list, and having no scrum half currently within the academy, Munster head coach Johann van Graan found himself with only Nick McCarthy as an available option in the position for this weekend, and beyond.
Van Graan will have no choice but to select one of them in the number 21 shirt for Saturday, in what should be a wonderful opportunity for the relevant newcomer.
The Munster resources will be further stretched by the fact that front rowers James Cronin and Rhys Marshall miss out due to injuries picked up against Leinster, meaning young Bantry man Josh Wycherley will get another chance to impress, like he did pre-Christmas down in the brilliant win in Clermont.
Kevin O’Byrne is also likely to return to the squad this weekend. Much has been made in the past week of how the collapse of the Munster lineout was integral to their defeat to Leinster, and one can’t help feeling that had O’Byrne started then the result would have been very different. '
At 29 years of age, he is not exactly in the youngster category anymore, but you could well argue that he has been the form hooker in Ireland this season, and even if Andy Farrell is likely to overlook him, it would seem a dreadful error for van Graan to do so.
Connacht’s 20-26 defeat last weekend at the hands of the Ospreys means that, despite losing to Leinster, Munster remain eleven points clear in Conference B. It would take a monumental collapse from Munster at this stage for them not to finish top. They can afford to lose a couple of games and still finish in first place, and even should they stutter, there does not appear to be any side in the Conference capable of capitalising.
The other side of the coin is that even though Munster are pretty much guaranteed top spot in Conference B, there appears to be little chance now of them finishing with more points than the Conference A winners, whether that be Leinster or Ulster, meaning a home Pro 14 Final is no longer possible.
With that in mind, van Graan should make sure that promising youngsters such as Thomas Ahern and Jack Crowley see plenty of game time in the final rounds of this competition.
There are a large number of Munster players out of contract in the summer, and you would imagine, due to the cutthroat nature of top-level sport, that a number of experienced players will not have their contracts renewed.
With that in mind, surely it would make sense to fast track the development of the talented young players emerging at Munster right now. An away trip to Benetton would seem the perfect place for such a learning exercise to occur.