MONDAY is one year since a Munster side containing a dozen debutants defied all the odds to secure a famous bonus point victory over Wasps in the opening round of the Heineken Champions Cup in Coventry on 12 December, 2021.
A lot of water has passed beneath Thomond Bridge since. The global Covid crisis has dissipated, Munster have a new coach, Wasps don’t even exist as a professional rugby club anymore. It has been a strange twelve months, but nothing was stranger than that match a year ago.
It all began when Munster’s trip to South Africa to fulfil the southern hemisphere leg of their URC fixtures late last November went array, as the sojourn coincided with a huge spike in Covid numbers in South Africa that saw the entire country enter lockdown.
48 players and staff got stuck in Cape Town meaning that Munster’s opening Heineken Champions Cup round away to Wasps was in serious jeopardy, as 34 of that touring party were players. Suddenly Munster faced the prospect of having to field a matchday squad of 23 players that had not travelled to the southern hemisphere. To say it was a big ask would be a considerable understatement.
Luckily for Munster, their Irish internationals weren’t in South Africa at the time of the outbreak, as they had been in Ireland camp for the Autumn Internationals against Japan, New Zealand and Argentina, meaning Andrew Conway, Keith Earls, Joey Carbery, Conor Murray, Dave Kilcoyne, Tadhg Beirne and Peter O’Mahony were all available. Throw in the returning Springbok Damian de Allende, and fit-again centre Chris Farrell and Munster had nine extremely experienced players to base their patched-together side around.
Dave Kilcoyne was the only experienced front-rower available, while Tadhg Beirne was the only senior second-row. In the battle of the front five Munster were going to be seriously undercooked in terms of know-how at this level.
Inexperienced tight head Roman Salanoa had been injured but he managed to recover just in time to take a place on the bench, as Costello turned to the inexperienced Cork youngsters Scott Buckley and James French to fill the no. 2 and 3 shirts. The equally inexperienced Waterford lock Eoin O’Connor partnered Beirne behind them.
Openside John Hodnett also rushed back from injury, while Shannon youngster Daniel Okeke played at number eight. Captain Peter O’Mahony was very much the old man of the back row.
Munster were able to field experienced half-backs, wingers and centres, but had to plump for 19-year-old Patrick Campbell at full-back.
Overall, five players, Campbell, Okeke, O’Connor, French and Buckley, were debuting from the start, while seven more debutants Declan Moore, Mark Donnelly, John Forde, Conor Moloney, Ethan Coughlan, Tony Butler and Jonathan Wren would all debut off the bench.
To be fair, Wasps were missing 18 senior players themselves, but it always felt like it was going to be one of those famous Munster nights regardless. Keith Earls and Andrew Conway scored tries but it was the fabulous solo try from Patrick Campbell and the final try scored by man of the match Scott Buckley that were the true highlights.
It is only a year but it is interesting to note the development, or lack thereof, of some of these players since. Of the dozen debutants only Campbell, and to a lesser extent Buckley have really kicked on. A few like Forde, Moloney and Okeke have had injury issues, while the unfortunate Wren has had to retire from rugby completely, and Moore is now at Ulster.
The others have had to bank the brilliant experience and head back to the great learning ground that is the AIL. It was possibly asking a bit much to expect them to get serious game time once the rest of the squad returned from South Africa. The thing is they are all relatively young, time is on their side, and we may see them again yet.
Patrick Campbell, Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Keith Earls, Joey Carbery, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Scott Buckley, James French; Eoin O'Connor, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O'Mahony (c), John Hodnett, Daniel Okeke.
Declan Moore, Mark Donnelly, Roman Salanoa, John Forde, Conor Moloney, Ethan Coughlan, Tony Butler, Jonathan Wren.