The Depth Chart

The Halfbacks

Munster’s halfback situation is looking pretty healthy heading into 2021/22, albeit with some key retention decisions to be made ahead of some big renewals. This contract season is going to be hectic squad wide with regards to who to keep, who you cut and who you can convince to stay.

Two top of the chart decisions loom large, however, and they will define Munster and, I guess, Ireland’s medium-term future at #9/#10. At the end of 2021/22, Joey Carbery and Conor Murray will be off-contract and the retention strategies around both of them are about as different as it gets.

When Conor Murray signed a new three-year central contract with the IRFU in October 2018, it took a few people by surprise. Not that a player like Conor Murray would be at that tier of contract – he plainly was then and arguably still is – or that the IRFU would look to tie him down to a deal like that but that it was done so quietly and in the midst of a hubbub about his fitness and the privacy around it. Some speculated that Murray’s reluctance to put too much information out there about his injury was a ploy in those same contract negotiations, not realizing that the people he was negotiating with would be aware of the injury as they were the ones keeping it private or that he had signed the deal a month earlier.

Murray’s three-year contract was reported to be in the €800k a year bracket which would make him Ireland’s best-paid player across that period. It reflected his national and provincial importance as well as his status as one of the best scrumhalves playing the game at the time. In 2018, Murray was a few months removed from helping Ireland win a Grand Slam, a season removed from a highly successful Lions tour in New Zealand, two seasons removed from starring in big, first time Irish wins over the Springboks in South Africa and the All Blacks in Chicago, so his value to the IRFU was never higher and the deal reflected that at the time.

Conor Murray was the Irish #9 jersey in 2018 and the gap between Murray and his potential replacements/competitors was as vast as the gap between Sexton and his. Sure, there were guys capable of coming in and doing a job for a few games – sometimes to a high level – but they were incomplete operators of varying levels and, crucially, not being paid €800k a year by the IRFU.

This isn’t a “central contract means you must start” thing because that’s a poor reduction of the concept. There are levels to this game and players judged at the elite level of the game are valued because of their ability to perform in that elite environment. Their pay level will reflect that ability and if you’re paying a guy that the market says is worth €800k a year, you’d better be getting value for money and that means usage of the player at the highest level. In the last two seasons, Murray has played more for Ireland and the Lions than he has for Munster and, sure, that’s blown up a bit by a World Cup, a Lions tour and an inflated test schedule because of the pandemic, but

I know a lot of people like to talk about “form” as if it were a cloud of magical dust that players can ride for a while and perform at the elite level before running out of form and dropping back to their usual performance. I don’t think that’s true, not fully anyway. Some players are just better. Their performance levels can dip if they are carrying an injury, if they are being used off-role, if they are reliant on the performance of another unit, or if they have some issue going on off the field but if these things are equal, quality will win every time.

Scrumhalves, in particular, can ride the form train quite hard and it can really shift their perception in the press. If a scrumhalf scores a lot of tries, for example, they are seen to be in “great form” because, well, they’re scoring tries, right? But that might not be the whole story. How are they tactically? What is their kicking game like? What is their pass quality like ruck to ruck?

Try scoring can be loud enough to cover a lot of sub-elite qualities.

When Ireland’s performance began to slack off after that 2018 high watermark, the question over Conor Murray’s “form” began to play a central role in the narrative of that slide. John Cooney’s name was often thrown around as a player who couldn’t get an opportunity while Murray was getting selected every time. How much of that was down to Cooney’s scoring?

It’s hard to say for sure but whenever I’ve looked into Cooney with any depth, I’ve seen a decent player with decent fundamentals that is completely buffed by an astonishing scoring record. Seriously, it’s outstanding.

Cooney has scored 25 tries for Ulster in his 85 games since signing in 2017/18. For context, Cheslin Kolbe scored 31 tries for Toulouse in 82 games in the same period.

What about the stuff outside of penalties, tries and conversions? Cooney is good here, sure, but not on Murray’s level consistently when it comes to pass accuracy, tactical kicking or decision making.

Since Murray signed his new deal in 2018/19, I would argue that he has not dropped off a cliff performance-wise – as some suggest – but his try-scoring certainly has. Between 2014/15 and 2017/18, Conor Murray scored an average of 7 tries a season. In 2017/18, right before signing his new deal, Murray scored nine tries in all competitions. Since 2017/18, Murray has scored an average of 2 tries a season which, like it or not, affects the perception of his performances as an individual if the collective performance of the team is also reduced.

Has Murray’s passing degraded? Not really. Has his decision making and execution degraded? Not precipitously no, certainly not to the level that you’d be concerned about anyway. Has his kicking degraded? Absolutely not, although the public perception of box kicking, in general, has never been lower so just how good and consistent Murray is at this area of the game isn’t really recognised.

It’s a bit like praising a guy for being able to throw a ball of paper at your head from the back of a classroom ten times in a row without missing. It’s impressive, yes, but you don’t like it so you don’t want to encourage it.

Murray’s tactical kicking and his willingness to take on the responsibility of kicking 10+ times a game if needs be and to do it with real accuracy – be it as a contestable or straight exit – is what marks him out as a modern great, and what differentiates him from his challengers in Ireland over the years like Boss and Reddan midway through the decade and Luke McGrath and Kieran Marmion in recent years.

If you have a scrumhalf who can kick as well as Conor Murray, you have a method of pressurising the opposition on any possession inside your half and advancing the ball accurately up the field. In the modern game, this is an incredibly valuable skill and Murray is one of the best players in the world at executing it.

This is all while being a player capable of defending effectively anywhere in the primary line.

The question for the IRFU is this – can they afford to retain Murray on anything close to the terms he is currently signed on?

If we take it that Murray is on close to €800k a year when you factor in stuff like performance bonuses, sponsor deals, etc, his renewal couldn’t come at a more difficult time for the IRFU, who will also be looking to negotiate with Tadhg Furlong on a deal that could be close to the same terms if they can come to terms. If Johnny Sexton is looking to play on for another year that could also be a relatively expensive central deal to negotiate. This is all in an environment where the union have to cut costs again in the hoped-for aftermath of the pandemic.

If Murray would take a €200k/€300k reduction per annum, would he be worth signing on a one-year deal to take him up to 33 years of age and the 2023 World Cup? Should he even take that kind of cut when he could have his pick of clubs elsewhere in Europe who could pay him marquee wages close to (or maybe even above) what he was on?

This is the balancing act that the IRFU will have to walk this year.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking Murray is on the path to being washed up after a disappointing Lions tour (from a selection perspective) but he’s comfortably one of the best scrumhalves playing the game right now and his perception outside Ireland is of a world-class player. Think Ruan Pienaar joining Ulster – that’s the type of signing Conor Murray would be for anyone other than Munster.

That said, Murray’s “value” to Ireland is greater than it is to Munster. At a Munster level, Munster have a CORE 1 talent in Craig Casey who’s made huge strides at just 22 years of age. I mean, Casey was capped for Ireland at 21 years of age, which would make him the youngest scrumhalf capped by Ireland in the professional era. Casey was a foundational talent ahead of last season and more than lived up to that billing, to the point where he’s comfortably a CORE 1 talent for Munster.

It’s at the point where Casey and Murray could be #1/#2 for both province and country this season.

That explains our hefty scrumhalf numbers down the depth chart with Neil Cronin and Rowan Osborne as SQUAD 2 players and Ethan Coughlan/Paddy Patterson in the academy.

PlayerPositionAge in Jan 1 2021HeightCurrent WeightProjected Role Set
Ethan CoughlanSH20N/AN/ATempo #9
Paddy PattersonSH235'7"75KGTempo #9

We expect to be without Murray and Casey for certain stretches of the season because of their test responsibilities – games/camps – so we need the extra bodies there, especially with a guy like Neil Cronin recovering from a serious ACL injury.

Why did Munster sign Rowan Osborne from Leinster ostensibly to replace Nick McCarthy, who rejoined Leinster from Munster last season? Because he’s a guy with senior experience – not a lot, admittedly – who can fill in the gaps for Munster if Casey/Murray are indisposed and Cronin takes time to settle back into the swing of things post-rehab. At 25 and with less than 200 minute professional minutes under his belt, Osborne is more about what he could be than what he is. Everything I’ve seen of him shows a guy with a good passing range, good fundamentals and an ability to play up-tempo but we’ll have to wait to see how the rubber hits the road down here. He didn’t seem to fit with what Leinster wanted from their 9s which, to me, seems to be a player capable of running more of a short game with a breaking/linking threat as opposed to the mid-long range game Munster look for.

Nick McCarthy struggled down here for the same reason that he’ll be successful back at Leinster this coming season in that he’s a good player, a decent kicker but the consistency of his mid-to-long range pass is average enough. That won’t be a problem at Leinster where he will link more with his forwards around the ruck and off #9 with the primary playmaker rarely moving that far out of range that it might stress his pass.

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We cannot disentangle Murray’s advancement to veteran status and a proposed central contract extension from Casey’s development as a guy that Munster will look to become their primary scrumhalf in the next two seasons. There are budgetary reasons for this too. Ideally, Munster would love to move from central contract to central contract when it comes to Murray and Casey. If Murray, for example, signs a one-year central contract deal to take him up to the 2023 World Cup with the idea that he would slide into a 1A/1B veteran role with Casey gradually taking more Champions Cup and other Category 1 games as the starter, you could time Murray’s transition post-World Cup to France/England with Casey ascending onto a central contract deal, if he continues to perform for Ireland this season and next.

Would that interest Murray? One could reasonably ask what more he has to do in Ireland, perhaps bar winning another trophy with Munster. He’s gone on three Lions tours, he’s beaten the All Blacks, he’s won tours in Australia, he’s won Six Nations and Grand Slams, he’s 11 caps away from 100 – look, I think if he makes four World Cups, joining O’Driscoll, Best and O’Connell, he won’t have much left to achieve here and could ride out for a two or three-year stint abroad for some additional cash post-retirement.

As for Casey, there are no other young scrumhalves who even come close to his level of development and experience right now, so that could make a tonne of sense for Munster if they could manage that transition.

I could easily see Craig Casey captaining Munster post-2023 and a one-year deal for Murray that takes him up to the 2023 World Cup could help to ensure a seamless transition from one central contract tier player to another in a crucial position.

NamePositionAge in Jan 1 2022GradeContract Year in 2022?
Conor MurraySH32CORE 1/PRIORITY 1YES
Craig CaseySH21CORE 1NO
Neil CroninSH29SQUAD 2YES
Rowan OsborneSH25SQUAD 2NO
Joey CarberyFH26CORE 1YES
Ben HealyFH22ASSESS 1YES
Jack CrowleyFH/M21FOUNDATION 1NO
Jake Flannery FH/FB22POTENTIAL FOUNDATION 1YES

That brings us to another crucial position and one Joey Carbery.

Carbery is easily a CORE 1 level talent who, at his best, is a potential successor to Johnny Sexton for Ireland. He’s off-contract this season after signing a two-year contract extension one season after his contentious move south from Leinster in 2018/19.

The only issue was/is Joey Carbery’s injury record which has limited him to 26 Munster appearances in three seasons. For a bit of context, Craig Casey ascended from the academy to his first senior deal in the same time frame and has made 29 Munster appearances. A series of injuries picked up at test level as far back as 2018/19 and ending with a disastrous decision to take him to Japan after an ankle injury in a World Cup warm-up game essentially kept Carbery away from his best for the guts of two calendar years between the game he won off the tee against Exeter in January 2019 and his eventual return in February 2021. Sure, he played four games for Munster between those points but they were shadow appearances where he was half fit or playing through an injury.

Since his return – which was far from a sure thing – Carbery has done quite well and has shown glimpses of the player he was up to January 2019 in phase play all while being the same assassin off the tee that he’s been since Castres away in 2018.

The question is, what kind of contract will Carbery be on next season? Will it be a Munster contract, a central contract or a Leinster contract?

I know that sounds very clickbaity but I can’t shake the timing between Johnny Sexton’s one year contract winding down and Carbery’s contract expiring at the same time. I’ve heard absolutely nothing to suggest that Carbery and Leinster is a possibility as of today but would it be a shock? No. I’ve seen little to suggest that Ross Byrne is anything more than a capable role player with a sub-elite ceiling and Harry Byrne is still something of a question mark. If Sexton finishes up next season, it would just make practical sense for Leinster to try to sign Carbery back as a CORE 1 tier replacement who’s comfortably a level above what Ross Byrne is capable of right now.

I fully expect Carbery to be at Munster for 2022/23 and beyond but part of my brain just won’t stop thinking about how much sense it would make for Leinster to make a play to bring Carbery back to replace Sexton.

Anyway, should Carbery stay at Munster – which I fully expect – then the question will be if he can do enough this season provincially and nationally to possibly earn a central contract deal. That would be of massive benefit to Munster, obviously but I would suggest that another provincial deal is most likely, given how little top-class rugby Carbery has had since his return from injury.

If Carbery can stay fit consistently, Munster will finally have the player signed to be our main guy in the position playing big games for us while fully sharp for the first time since January 2019.

I think it’s fair to say that Munster have only had one season since 2015/16 where we’ve had the guy slated to be our #1 playmaker available for the majority of the season – 2016/17. That season, Tyler Bleyendaal finally had the season he was signed to produce and Munster were all the better for it. Your halfbacks define the personality of your team and dictate style. JJ Hanrahan, who departed this off-season for Clermont, was a good backup to Carbery but a backup is what he was. I wrote earlier about “levels” when it comes to players and while Hanrahan was a good regular season PRO14 level player when the scale of the game went up, Hanrahan was not guaranteed to go with it.

A #10 is often defined by a succession of moments. More so than any other player on the pitch, a goal-kicking #10 can often be the literal difference between a win and a loss. A killer pass not executed, a blown exit, a penalty kicked dead, a penalty drifted wide – these are the moments that define you.

What kind of legacy does Ronan O’Gara have if he misses the drop goal to win the Slam in ’09 or the one after 100,000 phases against Northampton in ’11? What if he misses the penalties that pushed Munster ahead in the finals of ’06 and ’08 and Munster lost those games as a result, like in 2000? What if that critical penalty that O’Gara landed from the halfway line against Leicester during the pools in 2006/07 had just fallen short?

He’d be remembered today as a decent player capable of the occasional big moment, a good pro but couldn’t get it done at the top level. There’d be no shame in it but he wouldn’t be the O’Gara we know today.

He had bad moments in his career, for certain, but he erased those by scaling up in level over and over again while landing big moment after big moment. When you stack the misses up with the big wins, the big wins tower over anything else and they define O’Gara as a great.

Hanrahan’s big wins and misses during his second spell at Munster are neck and neck. For every drop goal against Benetton or away game to Clermont (where, to an extent, the pressure was off given how badly Munster were losing that match) there was a missed drop goal to beat Racing, multiple big games against Leinster where crucial penalties were missed and other important moments where JJ just didn’t do the business. There’s no shame in that and, don’t get me wrong, Hanrahan is a good player with a lot of road left to run in his career but Munster need a #10 who is going to be a regular starter at test level – or a player who was comfortably at that level – if we want to win trophies.

Guys who are at that level produce big moments regularly and Carbery has that potential.

Losing Hanrahan this off-season was a blow, but only from a cover perspective because it levered more pressure than is probably optimal on Ben Healy as the main alternate to Carbery, who I have down as ASSESS 1 during his one-year senior deal out of the academy.

I think he’s a player with potential, for sure, but I need to see a development of his game this year to warrant a longer deal. I spoke about Healy in-depth on this Test Match Animal podcast but I’d like to see a development of his phase play and offensive output as well as pulling around his goal kicking, which degraded as the season progressed after an unreal start.

He’s got potential but this coming season will show a lot, especially with Jake Flannery and Jack Crowley in the senior ranks. Jake Flannery is also on a one year deal but I really like him as a player. I think he’s got a thoroughly modern skillset that can really thrive in the modern game.

He’s a sharp passer, he’s incredibly elusive and he’s capable of unhinging from that first receiver role, roaming around the line on phase play and being an effective transition attacker. He’s got a good boot – although I need to see more of this – and has the capacity to be a strike playmaker you could easily deploy at fullback in a multi-playmaker attacking system.

Jack Crowley got a two-year deal after his first year in the academy, which tells you a lot about how highly he’s rated. Crowley is a natural athlete with, it would seem, a real instinctive feel for the game.

That is an incredibly potent combination in a young playmaker. Crowley has the potential to have a Romain Ntamack style impact on the game with the right combination of momentum, luck and opportunity. Crowley could have the athletic profile to be a player who runs at 10 or 12 as a secondary playmaker depending on how Munster want to attack this season. He looked the part there at A level alongside Flannery but that was at A level so has to be taken in context. Wherever he plays, Crowley looks to be a player with the mental fortitude to be a big player so he’s someone really worth watching as the season develops.

If Crowley really performs well, it could put pressure on the retention of Ben Healy who only signed a one-year extension despite having a breakout season last year. Even then, I think that Munster can realistically look to keep and play all four senior flyhalves beyond this season with the right attacking system. The man under the most pressure is, in my opinion, Healy, who has a fair bit to prove in the early going of the season before real contract negotiations roll around.

The halfback depth chart is one of Munster’s real strengths this season and there are very few poor decisions that can be made. The contracts of Murray, Carbery and Healy will be really worth keeping an eye on as the months progress.