Analysis: Why Chris Cloete is the perfect complement to Peter O'Mahony
Munster flanker Chris Cloete had a sensational season debut in his side's 49-13 win over the Ospreys on Friday.
The South African openside came in to the starting side for Tommy O'Donnell and made an instant impact as he topped the tackle count in defence while also winning a team high three turnovers at the breakdown, which, puts him first in the category at the province for the season.
The 27-year-old played just 10 games last season due to a fractured forearm and was then further hampered by persistent groin problems in the pre-season, but when he's healthy, he gives Munster a different look at openside flanker and he's a player that complements club captain Peter O'Mahony.
Over a five game stretch last season, Cloete averaged over 3.4 metres per carry, 0.8 linebreaks a game, 1.2 turnovers won, 1.4 defenders beaten and 9.8 tackles at a 96% success rate.
He's tenacious, aggressive and above all else an accurate fetcher over the top of the ball.
With O'Mahony on the blindside of Munster's scrum and Cloete clinging on to the openside, Munster have two genuine ball winners in their backrow which should align nicely with the hard running CJ Stander at the back of the scrum when the Ireland number eight eventually returns to the starting fold.
Jack O'Donoghue, Conor Oliver and Tommy O'Donnell are all excellent alternatives at openside but none are quite as prolific at the breakdown as Cloete.
The diminutive flanker has an excellent ability to take down the ball carrier and immediately put himself into a position where he can contest the ball and fight for a turnover.
In the clip above, Cloete is penalised by referee Stuart Berry for putting his hands in the ruck but the speed at which he is able to get over the top of the ball makes him a constant threat at the breakdown, a point which was not lost on O'Mahony.
"Chris, I thought he was superb today," O'Mahony told TG4 after the Ospreys win.
"His ability to get over the ball is very impressive. But we'll definitely have to work on some of Chris' decision-making and timing. But, look, the guy's made a huge impact."
Later in the half we can see Cloete again take down the ball carrier and get over the ball but what's great in this particular instance is that you can see him anticipate Ospreys number eight Sam Cross' pick and go.
Cloete hauls Cross in as soon as he breaks from the back of the scrum and immediately latches onto the ball where he absorbs the clean out of Tom Habberfield and Morgan Morris before winning the penalty.
Munster ultimately squandered the opportunity from the ensuing but Cloete, along with Tadhg Beirne, who set a PRO14 record last season (since 2010/11) with 39 turnovers for the Scarlets, and Peter O'Mahony, who put on a breakdown masterclass in Ireland's second Test win over Australia during the summer, should make the province extremely dangerous any time the ball goes to ground.
Munster conceded less turnovers in last season's PRO14 semi-final defeat to Leinster and in their Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Racing, but with Cloete and Beirne now both on board, they should have a big advantage this season when it comes to stealing ball at the breakdown.
The province are already averaging 8.6 turnovers a game through three games this season but with Beirne, O'Mahony and Cloete all receiving their first starts against the Ospreys we should expect to see that number rise quite rapidly.
With a strong pack, an improvement at fly-half in Joey Carbery and a full pre-season under head coach Johann van Graan behind them, Munster may finally have enough strength to get over the line in Europe and the PRO14 after several years of falling just short at the penultimate or final hurdle.
Exciting times ahead.