With the announcement that Munster have added Gerhard van den Heever to their squad for at least the next two seasons, the versatile Springbok has become the ninth player vying for a spot in Munster's back three.
The 24-year old will link up with his new club in November - the exact date remains unconfirmed as he is committed to Western Province's upcoming Currie Cup campaign. Since making four appearances for the South African U20s, van den Heever has failed to live up to his early potential and is yet to win a full cap. At 24, he has plenty of Super 15 experience, having played over 100 times in the competition. But what has worried some Munster fans is that for someone so young, he has already played for four different clubs - with Munster becoming his fifth.
Munster's hands were tied in terms of signing a non-Irish qualified (NIQ) player. The club's main priority was to add an out-half to their squad but Leinster signing Jimmy Gopperth meant that the province sought a special dispensation from the IRFU - a request which was flatly denied. Elsewhere at scrum half, another position which the province were hoping to add experience, Ruan Pienaar currently holds the NIQ spot in the country. Munster did apparently approach Leinster's John Cooney but with Eoin Reddan nearing the end of his playing days, Cooney opted to stay and contest with Luke McGrath for the number 9 jersey.
Felix Jones underwent surgery on his shoulder last week. Although the operation had been planned months in advance, it is enough to keep Jones on the sidelines for the beginning of the season. Jones who has been hampered by injuries in the last two years, finished the season very strongly. Another set back is the last thing Munster fans would have wanted to see but thankfully, the surgery seems more of a precaution.
Denis Hurley would seem like the automatic replacement for Jones at full back but with Simon Zebo showing that he is more than capable of slotting in at 15, it may be an occurrence that Munster fans will be seeing quite often next season. Comfortable under the high ball, coupled with a sumptuous left peg, Zebo could just as easily make the full back berth his own.
Hurley who has long been viewed as a squad player reminded Munster what he was capable of in last season's bitterly disappointing semi final defeat to Clermont Auvergne. His brilliant try in the corner almost sparked an amazing comeback but his efforts nevertheless provided a timely reminder of his ability.
If Zebo was to move to full back it would allow five others along with van den Heever battle it out for the two remaining places on the wing. Munster's other signing in the close season has also come in the shape of a winger - Leinster's Andrew Conway.
Conway who enjoyed a decent run in the Leinster team towards the end of the last season, was at times, electric. Blessed with two quick feet and a magical step, Leinster fans have been cursing their side for releasing a highly talented youngster to their old rivals. The deal was struck between the two clubs back in January, before Conway showed sparkling form for the senior side.
His performance in front of a large home support in Paul O'Connell's comeback game last March, gave Munster fans a taste of what is to come. His performance on the day was assured and far beyond his years and was capped by a brilliant individual try in which he left three Munster backs in his wake. Conway is a signing who Munster fans can be genuinely excited about.
Keith Earls has become the forgotten man of Irish rugby. A poor season by his own high standards, Earls missed the back end of Munster's season. A shoulder injury picked up in Ireland's final Six Nations game against Italy required surgery and was a major set back for Earls who was forced off early in the Heineken Cup semi final. Munster supporters will be hoping that the time spent on the sidelines will rejuvenate Earls. Question marks remain over his defensive capabilities which has seen him being shifted to the wing. Once touted as a potential replacement for Brian O'Driscoll, Earls' career has hit something of a crossroads.
Perhaps unfairly so, Earls has become an easy target for criticism from Irish fans and media alike. At 25, he has plenty of time on his hands and with the arrivals of Conway and van den Heever, he won't need any more motivation to nail down his place in Penney's starting 15 - which he is more than capable of.
Johne Murphy has a year remaining on his contract and will be out to earn himself an extension with the club whom he joined from Leicester Tigers in 2010. In his three years with Munster he has made 60 appearances but with so much competition in the back three, barring a host of injuries, it's difficult to see Murphy forcing himself into Munster's Heineken Cup match day squad.
Munster's two academy products, Luke O'Dea and Ronan O'Mahony will be aiming to further their experience by regularly featuring in the RaboPro12 campaign. Both youngsters scored tries on their debut in the competition - O'Dea back in 2011 against Edinburgh and O'Mahony against the Dragons just last May.
O'Dea earned himself a development contract last season while O'Mahony also graduated from the Munster academy and was rewarded with the same contract. Both players have scored bags of tries in the Ulster Bank League and are regulars with Munster's British & Irish Cup squad. O'Dea is slightly ahead of O'Mahony in terms of his experience with the senior team but both are exciting, quality youngsters.
Rob Penney faces a huge season with Munster. The disappointing league campaign didn't sit well with Munster fans last season. The kiwi has had a season to implement his ideology into a team that is undoubtedly in transition. The foundations have been laid, it is now time for Munster to take it to the next level.
With the back line facing a whole new look without the experience of Ronan O'Gara and Doug Howlett, Penney's first major task is to find the right balance with his back three.
Cian Tracey is a freelance sports journalist currently writing for The Irish Independent, Examiner, The Sun and Balls.ie.
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