ONE of the biggest news stories coming out of Munster in recent weeks has been the return to action of first choice out-half Joey Carbery from over a year away from the game.
The elephant in the room is the major implication his availability will have on the other number 10s at the club.
In reality, Carbery has barely been a factor for Munster two years now, with JJ Hanrahan being Johann van Graan’s main go-to man for some time, and 21-year-old Ben Healy also getting ample game time in the pivotal role.
And then we also have the much-heralded academy pair of Jake Flannery and Jack Crowley, whom a lot is expected of in the coming years, even if they have only two and one appearances, respectively, at Pro14 level for Munster to date.
That’s five players potentially fighting it out for one position. It may come to the point, pretty soon, where something has to give.
The big ‘if’ remains as to whether Carbery’s injury woes are finally over. If they are, then Munster look overstocked, but it is difficult to have any confidence in his long-term fitness at this juncture.
Hanrahan’s current contract expires at the end of this campaign. It would be incredibly harsh for Munster to just not offer him a new deal, given his contributions in the past two years especially, but on a purely business-level Hanrahan’s future probably depends on just how much they rate the trio of Healy, Crowley and Flannery.
Therefore, the safe decision would be to keep Hanrahan on, even if that was on a one-year deal. This would ideally allow the talented trio to develop further so that in a year’s time they are more physically and mentally ready for the step up to the highest levels of the game.
The fear for Munster fans would be that they won’t get the chance to have their cake and eat it too, however, and that IRFU High-Performance Director David Nucifora gets to have a major say in Munster’s future out-half situation. Someone on the outside, like Nucifora, could decide to spread out the resources and move Crowley or Flannery on to Connacht or Ulster, meaning Munster potentially lose out on a player who could be a cornerstone of the team for the next decade.
A similar situation arose two years ago, in a move that saw Tipperary out-half Bill Johnston leave his native province for Ulster in the summer of 2019. At the time Munster looked well-stocked for number 10s on paper, with Carbery, Tyler Bleyendaal and Hanrahan all on the books, as Ian Keatley was also allowed to leave in that close season.
It looked to be an extremely poor move, at least from a Munster viewpoint, in only a matter of months, when Bleyendaal was forced to retire in May of 2020 due to persistent neck injury issues, and with Carbery in the midst of his own personal injury hell.
Johnston was only 22 at the time, with only a dozen senior appearances for Munster to his name, yet it was deemed a sensible decision to move him on and keep a player reaching his 30s who had a dreadful injury record instead.
The only saving grace regarding this move is that Johnston has yet to pull up any trees at Ulster, so perhaps we should give the decision-makers the benefit of the doubt, but if it happened for Johnston then it could very easily happen again for either Crowley or Flannery.
Crowley and Flannery look like realistic options at centre or full-back, and could well work as legitimate second playmaker options in the future, should Munster decide to expand their game-plan and go down that route. Given that Carbery would be very comfortable in such a system, it would be extremely advantageous to have other players in the squad who possessed that level of adaptability, so holding on to them is of paramount importance.
If it does ever look like Nucifora is making noises about moving one of Munster’s talented young 10s on, and Munster felt they were not in a position to guarantee that player sufficient game-time right now, then Munster would be well advised to take the initiative and perhaps facilitate a loan move in order to get this player more minutes at senior level somewhere else.
Munster icon Ronan O’Gara has already name-checked Crowley when saying that he attempted to recruit him for La Rochelle. Given that sort of interest then surely a short-term deal could be made with an interested party. Such a loan move would certainly suit Munster and the player’s needs, even if Nucifora might not be crazy about the idea.
Of course, probably the easiest solution of all would be to just pick these young players, let them learn on the job, let them make their mistakes and back them anyway, and see how high their ceilings can be.
Putting all your eggs in the basket that is a bunch of talented, yet inexperienced 10s is certainly a risky one, but if Munster are brave right now, they may well be feeling the benefits of the decision for years to come.