I got my first real look at Munster this season as they took on the Dragons in Musgrave Park yesterday. I must admit the early signs were mixed but overall I think it’s reasonable for Munster fans to approach this season with muted optimism. The match was exactly what I expected, a scrappy, ugly Magners League clash which yielded only six points in the first half. Munster’s class and superior stamina told in the second half as they opened the Welsh side up to ensure a bonus point victory; 27-3.
On the negative side Munster allowed themselves to be dragged into an arm wrestle in the first forty and didn’t manage to convert their dominance into points. O’Gara still looks a shadow of the player he was three and four seasons ago. Repeatedly the fly-half took the ball into contact without the necessary momentum costing the home side possession and territory. Even when called upon to convert routine kick he misfired. He capped a dreadful performance with a mindless sin-binning. Is it finally time to let the former golden boy know that his place isn’t guaranteed? I for one think that Warwick is capable of controlling a game wonderfully at 10, has fantastic goal-kicking and drop-goal ability and doesn’t crack under pressure. The same cannot be said for ROG over the past two seasons.
A major plus for Munster this season is the depth of the squad. Not only are new recruits bolstering the side but players who were previously peripheral figures are steeping up their game. Nick Williams and Denis Hurley spring to mind immediately. The former crossed the whitewash three times against the Dragons to claim a second-half hatrick. The big Kiwi appears to have seriously worked on his mobility and is finally combing pace with his considerable bulk. Hurley had an impressive Churchill Cup on the wing for Ireland and has taken that form into the early stages of the Magners League, clinching two crucial tries to seal victory over the Scarlets last week.
Add to Munsters already formidable arsenal the experience of veteran Jean de Villiers and the exiting young talent Felix Jones and suddenly you have a backline bursting with match-winners. Tony McGahan now has the welcome torture of selection headaches. Dowling, Earls, Jones, Hurley, Murphy, Mafi, de Villiers, O’Gara, Warwick, Howlett are all fighting for places in the starting team. Meanwhile up front the likes of Leamy, Quinlan and Wallace can no longer take their places fro granted with Ronan, Williams and co. putting in such classy showings. The aging front row is a potential Achilles heel for the reds this year but the scrum decimated the dragons in Musgrave park so no scares just yet.
Munster finally have something integral for a team to keep progressing and that is genuine competition for places. If players are aware that one lazy outing could cost them their place they’ll give 100% week in week out. McGahan also has the luxury of being able to change the dynamic of the team with the strength of the bench. Such strength in depth could prove key in Munsters quest to bring the Heineken Cup back to Thomond Park.