Far from being passengers, Munster’s young guns took a leading role

That went rather well, didn’t it? I’d say Scott Buckley could scarcely believe how his Sunday was panning out as he sauntered over the Wasps line untouched to secure a bonus-point win for Munster. I’m sure the elation on his face as his team-mates swarmed him in celebration was as infectious for everyone else watching as it was for me.

A smile beamed from one of my sizeable ears to the other in the realisation that the job was done — they had pulled it out of the bag, big time.

If Buckley and his fellow debutants are anything like I was, they were probably — to put it crudely — shitting themselves in the lead up to the game. I was also thrust into my debut in messy fashion; Mike Sherry had done his ACL the previous weekend, and all of a sudden I was going from playing in front of 200 people against Belfast Harlequins in Thomond Park to playing on the same pitch in front of 26,000.

Our first lineout session that week didn’t do anything to settle my nerves. Between us, Damian Varley and I couldn’t hit a barn door, and the ire this drew from Paul O’Connell only served to heighten my anxiety. A phone call with Jerry Flannery, who was working at Arsenal at the time, did a lot to put me at ease, and I managed to get through my eight minute cameo without making any massive errors.

What was asked of these youngsters was entirely different. There was no coming off the bench when the game was done and dusted (although a few more got to do that in the final quarter). They were there from the start, and there was no hiding from the task at hand. The onus was on them to play a major part in getting their side a result. And that’s exactly what they did.

If any of them were nervous, they sure as hell didn’t show it. When you’re a young player in that situation, it can be tempting to focus on not making mistakes, on not messing anything up. A lot of guys would be happy to hit rucks, make their tackles, and take an occasional carry if it came their way. Not these fellas. Far from being passengers on this occasion or trying to find their feet, they took a leading role in proceedings from the off.

Buckley, James French, and 19-year-old Daniel Okeke fronted up to carry ball and make the hard yards all afternoon. Eoin O’Connor got through a huge amount of the second row grunt work that often goes unseen, and his charge down of Sam Wolstenholme’s box kick at the end of the first half led directly to Dan Frost’s yellow card. That, ultimately, gave Munster the opportunity to put their opponents to the sword.

Special mention must be given to John Hodnett who, despite being slightly more experienced than the young men I’ve just mentioned, is still only 21. He played like a seasoned international and I doubt I’m the only one that sees in him all the traits you would like a future Munster captain to have. The fact that this was his first start since rupturing his Achilles tendon 13 months ago makes his performance even more impressive.

While the backline looked similar enough to usual, the confidence shown in Patrick Campbell by selecting him to start at 15 was the call that generated the most discussion prior to the game. They could have moved Conway across if they wanted an older, more experienced head at the back for the big occasion.

Obviously, the former Cork minor footballer had done more than enough in training to allay any doubts about how comfortable he would be at European level, and the poise, pace, and instinct he showed as he backed himself to finish a sublime piece of attacking rugby was reflective of that.

It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the role that Brad Shields’ sending off played in shaping the outcome of the game. Obviously, this gave Munster a huge advantage, one they made the most of. At the time, I felt it was harsh. I was expecting a yellow and was surprised to see red. Having watched it back, however, it was clearly the right call.

You can’t make contact with the head, and you most certainly can’t do it by throwing a shoulder in and not wrapping your arm. The thickness of Dave Kilcoyne’s skull might mean he can withstand that kind of blow without showing any ill effects, but it doesn’t change the fact that it was a shoulder to the head. Romain Poite got this right, and had an accurate, commanding game in the middle of the pitch.

He let play continue when he could, remaining clear and consistent in his decision-making when he intervened.

While the focus is correctly on the performance of the youngsters, a huge amount of credit has to go to the senior players who led the way, both in the build up to the encounter and the game itself.

In addition to getting themselves in a position to perform, they had to assume another role last week and instil confidence, clarity and composure in a group full of strangers to such an occasion.

Peter O’Mahony set the tone for the afternoon with a try-saving tackle in the third minute and his performance, along with those of his fellow internationals, grew from there. Tadhg Beirne seemed to be operating on a different plane to everyone else, as is so often the case these days. You always expect your leaders to rise to the occasion, but that becomes even more critical when most of the squad have never played a minute at that level.

All in all, it was the day of the men from the junior ranks. As first outings go, it doesn’t get much better than that, and man of the match Scott Buckley’s performance was the pick of the bunch.

Aside from being 100% at the lineout, hitting his men at full stretch wherever he was asked, he gave a complete performance around the pitch.

Strong carries, big hits, turnovers and a well-taken try to round it off. We have a serious talent on our hands here, and he will be knocking on the door of those in front of him before long.

I wrote in Friday’s column that a commonly voiced grievance among supporters nowadays is the lack of homegrown talent coming through the system. I said there was some merit to this belief, and I still believe there is. But after seeing five youngsters being catapulted into the European Cup side and performing so impressively, it does give you pause for thought. Could it be that the talent is there, but doesn’t get enough opportunity to shine?

Of Sunday’s five debutants, how long would we have had to wait before seeing them get a crack of the whip, had Omicron not wreaked havoc on the team’s preparation? I assume none of them will be involved against Castres, nor should they be, if the regulars are available. But I do believe they gave a good enough account of themselves to deserve another opportunity or two to impress before the end of this season.

There will be an incredible buzz around camp this week. The high of Sunday’s victory, combined with the rest of the group being released from the shackles of quarantine, put Munster in as strong a position as they could be heading into this weekend. A limited but perennially effective Castres side won’t give them an easy ride, but they will surely be setting their sights on another five points.

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