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FEATURE Can Munster shift Ireland's natural order this Six Nations?

Can Munster shift Ireland's natural order this Six Nations?
5 months ago

It is a rare situation indeed in the world of Irish rugby selection. The blue of the eastern province around Dublin is under serious challenge from the red of the west coast based in Limerick, and over the next four years there could be a changing of the guard.

Leinster rightly dominated selection during the last World Cup cycle, with head coach Andy Farrell frequently starting as many as 12 or 13 of their players, but the historical balance could be primed to shift on its axis.

The most intriguing aspect of the great east-west seesaw which has always sustained Irish professional excellence is that it is a new generation of Munster backs who are preparing their ascent to the summit of the international game. The historical recipe used to feature a rump of western forwards and majority of eastern backs, but now a clutch of Thomond Park playmakers and finishers are firmly in the frame for the forthcoming Six Nations. Therein lies the novelty.

With the iconic Johnny Sexton now retired, Jamison Gibson-Park, Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and James Lowe in their thirties, and naturalized Aussie Mack Hansen injured, there is a definite opportunity for the new generation to stake its claim.

Leinster Sexton future hope
Life after the great Johnny Sexton now begins for Andy Farrell’s Ireland (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Half-backs Craig Casey and Jack Crowley and wing Calvin Nash will all be serious contenders – certainly to accrue more playing time, potentially to start games outright. Crowley should have had more of the first already. The decision to keep Sexton on for the whole 80 minutes in the World Cup quarter-final against the All Blacks was arguably the biggest tactical blunder of their tournament.

With one man extra for 10 minutes in the final quarter and the 38-year-old veteran winding down like a clockwork toy, Crowley’s youthful zest in attack might had made the difference, not least during that Homeric five-and-a-half minute, 37-phase final sequence of play.

The trio may well have been joined in Farrell’s Six Nations squad by Munster’s new Kiwi recruit Alex Nankivell, were he eligible for national selection. Unfortunately for Ireland, Nankivell only possesses 4% Irish DNA and will be 31 years old by the time he qualifies via residency, so the odds are firmly against him donning the emerald green.

Nankivell would undoubtedly make a good Irishman, because he is already an archetypal Munsterman. The ex-Chief has an innate sympathy with the traditional Thomond Park attitude to rugby: the cussed, socks-around-the-ankles, stand-up-and-fight approach that typifies the province. The seeds for his move north were planted over a post-match beer with Casey, Gavin Coombes and Niall Scannell after a 2022 tour game between Ireland A and the Maori in Wellington; then cultivated via an existing Chiefs-Munster clink through Aki and John Ryan.

When the Reds tight-head returned home from his stint in Super Rugby Pacific 2023, he brought the new man with him. Nankivell tagged along on a two-year deal; and when he arrived, he found another ex-Chief waiting for him.

Alex Nankivell has proven a shrewd Munster acquisition from the Chiefs in his native New Zealand (Photo by William WEST / AFP)

“I actually lived with [Leinster wing] James Lowe during my first season at the Chiefs, so I have got a pretty good relationship with him after playing with him at the Chiefs and at Tasman.

“He’s a good man, and he looked after me very well. He likes to say that he mentored me, which is pretty funny!”

Although Nankivell knew the All Blacks selectors were tracking him remotely, he was determined not to become yet another ‘nearly man’, waiting in the warehouse for a chance that would never come. “I was not going to be defined by [whether] I made the All Blacks,” he said.

“New Zealand is such a small place. I had been at the Chiefs for eight, nine years and I was just ready for a change of scenery and a new challenge. I had some chat indirectly from the All Blacks. I would have loved to do it, but there are so many opportunities as a rugby player these days and it would be a shame not to make the most of them.”

Nankivell fits Munster [and vice-versa] like an iron hand in a comfortable velvet glove, and he has already established a terrific working relationship with Casey and Crowley inside him, and big Antoine Frisch outside. The two ‘Cs’ do the scheming and playmaking, Frisch makes the big galloping runs, and Nankivell glues it all together in the middle. It is a marriage made in heaven.

Close-knit combinations with an intuitive synergy naturally tend to project the individuals within them on to a bigger stage, and showcase their talents for selection at the level above. This was the case with Munster’s midfield trio on the evidence of the recent Champions Cup match against Toulon, played out at the intimidating Stade Mayol, with the echo of the Pilou-Pilou rippling around the ground.

The home side were geared to dominate collisions. Their selection featured three natural number eights in the back-row and all 6ft 4ins and 108KG of Fiji skipper Waisea Nayacalevu in the centre. In the event, Nayacalevu was robbed no fewer than five times in contact and he was substituted before the end of the game. Crowley and Nankivell were highly instrumental in three of those five turnovers.

 

 

 

Munster took the ball off the Fijian giant up top, and down low; whether he was carrying high and looking to offload – Crowley is responsible for the ball-rip in the first instance, and Nankivell in the second – or trying to present the ball on the deck. It is the ex-Chief who is at the heart of the pilfer in the third scnario.

Once Munster demonstrated Toulon’s biggest power back was going to enjoy no easy pickings in the vulnerable 10-12 channel, they knew they were in business. That defensive link turned out to be one of the visitors’ greatest points of strength.

With ball in hand, the combination of Casey and Crowley grants the province excellent balance in their kicking game. Casey handles the tactical kicking chores via his left-footed box kicks. Nine of his 10 kicks finished in the black, either leading directly to a first touch by the chaser, or allowing him to home in, man-and-ball on the target after the catch.

The piece de resistance was Casey’s kick which led to the decisive score of the game in the second period.

 

The ‘boxy’ is perfectly weighted for right wing Calvin Nash to take it in stride with no break in momentum. It is almost South African in its perfection, so good that French international full-back Melvyn Jaminet cannot even get off the ground to contest it in the air. That is just what the doctor ordered for Farrell, with the key match of the Six Nations looming on opening Friday night in Paris, only a fortnight away.

Casey directs the tactical aspect of the kicking game in Munster territory, but the burden shifts to his partner Crowley for attacking kicks delivered in the opposition half.

 

 

There is excellent feel on both the middle chip for full-back Simon Zebo in the first clip, and the kick-pass to the corner for another of Munster’s ‘live’ Six Nations candidates, second row/back-row hybrid Tom Ahern, in the second.

Munster’s attacking renaissance has been squarely based on the length and speed of distribution in the half-backs, especially off the left hand.

 

Two long passes from Casey and Crowley take play well across midfield and allow Zebo to fade on the outer arc around the last Toulon defender, Leicester Fainga’anuku. On the way back in from the touchline, the defence is already stretched to breaking point, with all the home backfield in one half of the pitch and Munster planting both of their wide attackers outside of their defensive opposites.

Another bullet from the base off Casey’s left hand created the scoring opportunity for Nankivell under 30 seconds later.

 

There are plenty of healthy signs Ireland’s post-Sexton renewal will be a lot smoother and more progressive than many have anticipated. Farrell’s side still retain a core group of World Cup Leinstermen in the shape of Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Caelan Doris and Josh van der Flier up front; Gibson-Park, Garry Ringrose, Hugo Keenan and Lowe behind.

The real surprise is not so much that Munster are making a move on national selection, but they are doing it primarily in the backline. Casey, Crowley and Nash will all be mounting a challenge, while 6ft 9ins Ahern may get his shot up front.

If World Rugby’s qualification-by-residency period had stuck at three years, those four would more than likely have been joined by Nankivell. As it stands [at five years], he will likely have to make do with provincial rugby, but the auguries are positive.

Tapering their tactical cloth to the sharpest of tailored edges, and squeezing the maximum out of a limited talent pool, have become something of an Irish speciality in recent times, and there is tremendous enjoyment to be extracted from the effort at making it so. At Munster, everyone fights and nobody quits, and Nankivell will be no exception to that rule.

Comments

16 Comments
S
Shaylen 152 days ago

Crowley is a fantastic player. Might have made the difference in the world cup quarter final like you say. His vision with both boot and with ball in hand is excellent and he links well with other backs in both defence and attack. He drove Munster’s run in the playoffs to the URC win last year and in the final was one of the best on the park. Amazing composure for a young man. Definitely the future for Ireland

O
Otagoman II 152 days ago

Nice long passes from Casey getting his man outside the defender. Has he been studying Aaron Smith?

M
Mzilikazi 152 days ago

A wonderful article to wake up to, Nick, on this morning looking out over a canal at Noosa Heads, already warm and humid, rather than the cool of the higher country where we live up on the Dividing Range.

Munster is an interesting rugby province. Historically, in Ireland, rugby players have been drawn from the elite schools, some private, many church linked, Catholic or Church of Ireland(Protestant), and in Ulster, voluntary grammar schools. Thus the players tend to be professional men. Medical men, lawyers, accountants etc. However in Limerick, many have traditionally been working men, lorry drivers, bin men, builders, farmers etc. Thus similar to S. Wales and the Scottish Borders. These men, in the amateur days, were physically “hard men”, and often feared by the “softer” men out of the fine schools of Ulster and Leinster. Connacht was then very much the cinderella province, never winning many games.

Another interesting point of difference Munster has is that unlike the other three provinces, where a single school had dominated the very important Schools Cup Competition, Munster has a trifacta, with Cristians(CBC) and Presentations Brothers(PBC), both in Cork, and Rockwell College in Cashel, Tipperary dominant. CBC and PBC sit on 31 wins apeice, with Rockwell on 26.

An interesting factor today in the player pipeline is that several former hockey only schools now have powerful rugby teams. Notable examples are Bandon Grammar School in Cork which has produced Jack Crowley, Gavin Coombes and Darren Sweetnam, and Wallace High School in Ulster.

J
Jon 152 days ago

Love the width play. Saw it at the start of the season with Leinster when JGP got a good wide ball of the lineout, from his flanker I think, and then shifted it to the opposite side of the field in just the 2nd pass, where 3 players were waiting for it and opposition scrambling.

Left pass often has better technique and flies truer and longer.

5 years will be a big slog, I don’t know if he would stick around that long. Can see him enjoying a years extension but then I’d imagine he’d be keen on exploring more. Some talk in NZ about selecting offshore so I’d figure NZR would want to understand modern day players/offshore leagues before they do that. Bringing back players like Nankivell, while not necessarily an AB (nor potentially one), will allow them to evaluate their progress from their time overseas (and whether it would be detrimental to standards, or not, to allow ABs to play overseas) much more so. He would still be a great insurance policy come WC27 time as well. If he wasn’t interested in another destination though even earning selection at the back end of his career would be good reward for all, as that would be a big effort by club, and player.

Hope the small guys keep sticking to the big fellas.

K
K 152 days ago

Great article Nick. Wish my AB‘s had given Nankivell a shot, though I appreciate it would have been difficult to usurp Ioane, Barrett or ALB. Good to see he‘s doing well in Ireland!

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