Low lie the … inspirational centres

It’s odd that right throughout Munster’s period of dominance of Irish (2000-2008) and European (2006-2008) rugby, they never had a top class centre. The partnerships of Halstead-Kelly circa 2006 and Mafi-Tipoki in 2008 probably were the high water marks, but they have never had a really dynamic centre to release their outside backs. Perhaps this is a function of an historical bullock-and-boot ethos, but it remains a curiousity; and with Earls, Howlett and Jones outside, a top centre is crucial.
So for the third summer in a row, Munster are in the market for a chequebook centre. Two years ago, they signed Jean de Villiiers for what ended up to be one (unhappy) year after the Springbok world champion failed to prove himself to Mick O’Driscoll. Then last year we had the utter disaster that was Sam Tuitupoooooooooooooooohh (why oh why would Munster ever sign someone from Worcester?). This summer, again, it’s back to the drawing board.

The three names being mentioned in connection with Munster right now are Conrad Smith, Jacque Fourie and Isa Toeava. Lets look at each one, plus a few others who Ludd and Axel may wish to consider.
Three who are in the hunt:
Conrad Smith: Smith is probably the best outside centre on the planet, and is hot favourite to wear the All Black 13 shirt for the Tri-Nations and RWC. Smith is a marquee player, and if the NZRU can’t talk him into staying, there would be a queue of French teams willing to sign cheques a lot larger than Munster could afford.
Verdict: Pretty unlikely

Jacque Fourie: Jacque is fondly remembered by all biltong-chewing highveldters for the manly way he ran through a concussed Rog in the second Lions test in 2009. A man who was never unsure of his worth to the world, or of the South African man’s rugby superiority, its tough to see him having the necessary humility to fit in at Thomond.
Verdict: Another JdV in the making

Isa Toeava:

Toeava is a versatile and creative player who can play 10, 12, 13 or 15. There is a lot of traffic competing for not very many outisde back slots in NZ, and Toeava could find himself outside the 30 come RWC time without a good Tri-Nations. If that is the case, it may be a good time to head North, especially with Nonu having signed for the Blues. He is only 25 and would be perfect for Munster.

Verdict: Tony, Tony, sign him up
Three that got away:
Ma’a Nonu: was heavily discussed on Munster fan forums, but he has signed for the Blues for next year. The talk in NZ was that if he did head abroad, it would have been to join his mate Mils Muliaina in Japan.

Verdict: Probably a pipe-dream all along

James Downey: agricultural bosher who turned into Sonny Bill Williams after side-stepping Dorce in the HEC final. Unlikely to reach such heights again. Would be a good move for James Downey, Irish rugby, Leinster, Ulster and Connacht .. but not Munster.
Verdict: Ooooooooooooooooohhh

Jean de Villiers: yes, we know he never learned the words to “Stand Up and Fight” first time out. Yes, we know he didn’t impress Micko. No, he didn’t drink in Jirry’s pub. Normally, those are the top 3 criteria. But if we allow for rugby ability, JdV would have fitted the bill. But he has re-signed for the Stormers.
Verdict: Don’t look back in anger, we heard you say

Three from left field:

Paddy Wallace: Stop sniggering at the back! We have been through this before. Paddy is emphatically not an outhalf, but he is experienced and a top-notch distributing centre, which is exactly what Munster need. Granted a 10-12 axis of Rog-Paddy does look a little flimsy, but for 2/3 of Ireland’s Grand Slam campaign, it worked, albeit back when O’Leary was good and Wally wasn’t 35. Plus Luke Marshall might be wearing the Ulster 12 shirt very soon.
Verdict: Not likely, but should be considered
Felipe Contepomi: How funny would this be? Who knows, Stade’s finances could collapse again, freeing Conters up for a move back to Ireland.  And Quinny has retired now. Although Rog hasn’t.
Verdict: Ligind in the making

Gavin Henson: Would blend right into the Munster shirt, thus offering invaluable cover for actual rugby players. Not sure how the waxing would go down in Moyross, but Gav will take anything going and if this drags on any longer Munster will get desperate.
Verdict: About as welcome in Limerick as the Orange Order

One thing’s for sure though: whoever arrives had better be a lover of theatre, because Axel has block booked a whole season’s worth of seats for the lucky man to see that play about 1978, so he knows Munster history.

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7 Comments

  1. Interesting reading, your list is a mixture of 12s and 13s, which do you think Munster need most and why do you think they should consider signing someone for the other centre spot if they can't get one for the centre spot they most need to fill? Arguably they would have done better last season (that's my opinion anyways) if they hadn't signed Tuitupo in desperation and instead had given two players who were already at the province a more stable run in the two centre positions.All the players you mention are of course of a much higher standard than Tuitupo but Munster should in my opinion first decide on exactly what they need – if they need a 12 or/and a 13? Rather than just seeing what becomes available and spending a season shoehorning that person in to the detriment of the talent they already have as happened with Tutitup and to a lesser extent JdV.

  2. Hi Czarak – you raise an interesting question. The short of it is that they are a bit thin in both spots, so either would help.Looking at their current options, we have:12: Lifeimi Mafi and Ivan Dineen.13: Danny Barnes, Tom Gleeson and the option of Keith Earls. Mafi can also fill in here.Other options: Johne Murphy and Darragh Hurley and Scott Deasy offer cover at 12. Ian Keatley has played 13 the odd timeIt all looks a little thin and lacking in experience.Mafi is the most experienced of their options, so if we assume he is seen as a first pick, then a 13 is the more urgent, especially if you agree that Earls is too good on the wing to move inside.But Barnes is the most promising player, and Mafi lacks consistency, so perhaps the better option is a top notch 12 to grooom and develop Barnes.So the picture is a bit muddy, it rather depends on what grand plan management have for next year. I think the key issue is they need creative player – Tipoki-Mafi were a great partnership but they were steppers. Munster are now in the position where they have great running threats out wide, and it's all about getting them the ball, so they need a distributor.Either way, Isa Toeava looks close to ideal.

  3. What's the joke/reference to Mick O'Driscoll & JDV??

  4. After Munster lost 30-0 to Leinster and Drico took de Villiers on the outside for one of the tries a senior Munster player came up to de Villiers and said ‘Do you happen to have a twin brother who plays for South Africa?’. Zing! In all honesty we can't say for sure it was Micko… but he's a likely contender! Could have been Quinny of course… he gave Howlett a bit of a ribbing after he failed to get over the whitewash in his first four games.

  5. In my opinion Munster should be looking for a world class backrow. Munster back row has regressed since 2009 and I feel this is the area of their team which needs addressing. Perhaps a certain Mr Elsom could be the man to revitalise Munsters fortunes?

  6. Maybe! He has not had a happy season, and the Brumbies are a mess. Can't see it though – Munster couldn't afford him.Your point is well-made though – Munster need some younger back-row forwards. James Coughlan had a good year, but is an honest journeyman to be brutally honest.There was a bit of talk about Kevin McLoughlin before he became a possible second row, but he looks like staying in D4 now. Leinster are well stocked at backr-ow so there is still a possiblity of a defection…

  7. Johnny makes a good point. Given the combination of age-profile and ability of the players currently at Munster in the backrow and midfield, Munster would probably be a lot better off signing a star back rower right now than a star midfielder.Yes Mafi/Barnes is a bit thin on the ground at centre compared to most elite European teams but signing a big name who might not fit in and only stay for a season or a mediocre name who might not add anything at all would stunt Munster's long term growth in that area more than anything – that's what happened with Tuitupo and with JdV to a certain extent.

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