The leaves are starting to turn brown and that can only mean one thing: it’s time for the annual bot of speculating as to what exactly ‘s midfield for the upcoming season will look like. With James Downey and Casey Laulala being moved on this summer, whatever happens this year it will be something new.
In their places arrive Tyler Bleyendaal, an intriguing Kiwi centre and Andrew Smith, a less celebrated signing who has the look of a classic journeyman, but in reality, a player about whom nobody really knows very much.
An interview with Axel Foley has added some intrigue to the mix. He describes Bleyendaal and Smith as adding a little ‘guile’ in midfield. These days coaches rarely talk about guile or skill, preferring to focus on physicality, and the contact warzone. So that’s a good start.
The real bit of interest is his declaration that he is open to the idea of squeezing both Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan into his team, implying a preference for a ‘second five-eighth’ type player at 12. It has been the long held belief of anyone with a pair of eyes and half a brain that Munster have oodles of dangerous runners out wide but lack distributors in midfield to get them moving onto the ball. Rob Penney’s desire to get the ball wide was reasonably well founded, but too often the passing skills weren’t up to it and the ball was just too slow in getting there. Even their better centres in recent times haven’t really had great distribution skills.
Everyone seems to be assuming without really thinking much about it that Foley’s appointment represents a – brace yourselves – ‘return to traditional Munster values’, but we have never really bought that line. This bit of idle chatter encourages us further that he will try to get Munster’s to play a relatively dynamic brand of rugby, hopefully unleashing his fastmen in the wide channels. Matt Giteaus’s brilliance for Toulon and even, erm, Gavin Henson’s fleeting greatness at the tail end of last season reminded us all of the value of the distributing 12. With Stuart ‘I’m Huge’ Olding being primed for a big season for Ulster, the Keatley-Hanrahan-Bleyendaal triumvirate at Munster and – dare we suggest it? – possibly Ian Madigan stepping into the role in Leinster, is the age of the second-five eighth upon us?