As Doug Howlett collapsed onto the turf at the Liberty Stadium last Saturday, under no contact, Munster fans immediately feared the worst. This is not a man who goes down or stays down. Howlett is one of the hardest-working backs to ever grace the field for Munster and has no time for feigning injury. Confirmation of those fears came yesterday as the All Blacks legend was ruled out for the remainder of the season.
This is a cruel blow for a Munster squad who have already had to cope with losing their two other most penetrative backs in Keith Earls and Felix Jones. With David Wallace missing too, Munster are a side short on players who can go through holes in opposition defences. This season, with Earls and Jones missing, Howlett has been the only back to make consistent inroads into defences for Munster. Even against the Ospreys on Saturday, as many of those around him struggled, Howlett made positive yardage every time he got on the ball. His work-rate was as high as ever and was rewarded with a try when he dived on the rebound of Will Chamber’s grubber.
That was Howlett’s third try in three games and he had looked in fantastic form recently. But unexpected injuries are part and parcel of sport. Munster now have to move past this disappointment as they prepare for a trip to the Scarlets on Saturday. How will McGahan replace the superb Howlett? We look at some of the options within the Munster squad.
This weekend comes too early for Earls who is almost recovered from his knee injury. The Ireland winger is expected to be back in training next week and is hoping to be fit for the return match with the Scarlets in Thomond Park. Meanwhile, Jones is still sidelined with his foot injury and is not expected back for another 4-5 weeks.
Simon Zebo went over on his ankle in training yesterday in another blow for Munster. He is hoping to be recovered in time for the 3.40 kick-off on Saturday but it is always hard to predict how long ankle injuries take to heal. In one Twitter update, the young winger said “Hurt ankle pretty bad today hoping for a good recovery per next day or two to try play #godihateice”.
Zebo has looked good on the ball in his last two outings for Munster so McGahan will be hoping that the Cork Con speedster will recover in time. If Zebo is fit, he will most likely be part of a back-three with Denis Hurley and Johne Murphy. Hurley has put in two strong performances at full-back in the Munster’s last two matches and he deserves to keep his place there. Murphy is comfortable on the wing and should be moved there to accommodate Hurley’s good form.
If Zebo does not recover in time then Munster will have to move one of Danny Barnes, Will Chambers or Lifemi Mafi onto the wing. The most likely of these three is Barnes who, even when playing at centre, often spends large parts of games out in wide channels. Mafi and Chambers certainly looks like the best centre partnership at the moment for Munster.
McGahan does have one further option in re-jigging his backline. Ian Keatley played full-back for Connacht many times last season and he could come into the back three, leaving Zebo, Hurley and Murphy battling for the wing positions. Keatley hasn’t featured at full-back for Munster yet this season so this will most probably be one of McGahan’s least favoured solutions.
Whatever backline Munster do decide on, they are facing a young, talented and dynamic Scarlets backs division. The likes of Scott Williams, George North and Liam Williams are devastating if given space. Rhys Priestland directs play from outhalf and they also boast Wales centre Jonathan Davies. However, the Scarlets are facing injury worries of their own as North and Davies hope to be fit in time for what should be another magnificent Heineken Cup clash.
With Howlett out, the most obvious choice of backline for Munster would be Murray and O’Gara at half-backs, Mafi and Chambers in the centre, and Zebo, Hurley and Murphy making up the back-three. Hopefully Zebo recovers from his ankle injury in time, as Munster will need the pace and penetration that he offers. While it’s not quite do-or-die time for Munster yet, whoever is chosen will need to step up to the plate and help make up for the loss of Howlett.
Photo courtesy: M+MD