Professional rugby is a results-driven business.
When the season gets up and running it’s often difficult for teams to allocate the time to experiment with different players or provide vital senior experience to the younger contingent.
Especially right now, with the current condensed period of the season which sees four rounds of the European Cup take place over five weeks, the stakes have never been higher.
However, the upcoming block of games, including this weekend and the interprovincial derbies which will take place over the festive period, we will likely see the Irish provinces give youth a chance due to the IRFU requirements to rest those who were involved at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
In Munster’s case, there is an ever-increasing call for Johann van Graan to give the next generation an increased exposure to senior rugby.
The southern province’s Academy is littered with talent from last season’s Ireland U20 squad but one of those who has already earned a senior contract is Limerick man Craig Casey.
The energetic scrum-half made his PRO14 debut at the end of last season when he came on for the last four minutes of Munster’s win over Connacht while this season, he has added one further appearance in the 21 minutes he saw off the bench against the Ospreys in Cork.
With Conor Murray likely to be rested over the Christmas block of games, there is a huge opportunity for someone to lay claim to the backup spot especially after Alby Mathewson’s recent departure.
Casey will no doubt make his case but there is also competition in the form of Neil Cronin and the recently signed Nick McCarthy.
Van Graan, speaking at a PRO14 media event in Cardiff on Wednesday, revealed that Casey is in line for his first start in the coming weeks while also urging the trio to put the pressure on Murray.
“You have got to back your squad,” van Graan said.
“Craig knows which games he is going to get over the next few weeks. I am really looking forward to seeing him play again. I am looking to give him a start pretty soon.
“Nick has been waiting patiently in the ranks and someone like Neily Cronin over the last two years since we brought him from club rugby, every chance he has had, he has used it. Last year he was on the bench in round one against Exeter away. He made his European debut.
“All of those guys are all very keen to get into the team and this is their moment now. Between the three of them, they have got to look to push Conor and to really challenge for that number nine jersey. Between the three of them, we know over the coming weeks, they will get an opportunity to play.”
The Munster head coach was keen to stress that no player’s place in the team is by any means guaranteed and reiterated that he will pick players on form.
“You can’t just play one player 80 minutes week-in, week-out, that’s why specifically at nine, the game becomes quicker, more physical demands, you need to make sure that you get fresh legs on.
“It’s certainly imperative from our side that Nick, Craig and Neily make the step up to not only push for the 23, but really push for the number nine jersey.
“I think we have pretty good depth in all positions that no one is too comfortable in the team. I think we have shown that, the guys who are on form, we have picked.”
The man who currently holds that nine jersey, is of course, Murray.
The 30-year-old hasn’t reached the same level of form which put him in the conversation as one of the world’s best scrum-halves. Since his return from injury last season, his form has been inconsistent.
Van Graan believes that Murray is still a world-class operator and that he will continue to back his man for the foreseeable future.
“He has played some good rugby. His World Cup game against Scotland was probably his best game and I felt his kicking game has certainly improved over the last few weeks. Conor is a world-class player and he measures himself against his own standards.
“He is our starting nine, he is a Munster man and we back him as one of our world-class players. He has started in all of our big games and we will continue to back him. He wants to be the best in his position and he wants to retain that No.9 jersey in Ireland.”