Beleaguered Munster up for Exiles Challenge
THIS was supposed to be one of those rip-roaring, January occasions when Munster tear into English opponents in a packed Thomond Park with the scent of a home Heineken Cup quarter-final wafting through their flared nostrils.
Instead, we have a dead-rubber encounter in a stadium expected to be considerably short of a full house between two sides desperate to get their seasons back on track and provide a springboard to a brighter future.
London Irish -- after losing 10 games on the bounce -- got that process underway with last week's excellent victory over a typically underwhelming Ospreys side, and their desire for momentum makes them dangerous this afternoon.
Particularly so when you consider they have been employing the services of former South Africa World Cup-winning coach Jake White on a short-term consultancy basis, a role he has previously carried out for the Ospreys and Toulon.
The run of bad results led to senior players such as England scrum-half Paul Hodgson and Ireland second-row Bob Casey losing out to promising youngsters Darren Allinson and Matt Garvey.
The team Toby Booth has selected for today's clash is packed with potential and proven potency.
From the pace and power of Topsy Ojo, Seilala Mapusua and Sailosi Tagicakibau in the backline to the scrummaging strength of Alex Corbisiero and Faan Rautenbach, line-out skills of Nick Kennedy and ball-carrying of George Stowers and Chris Hala'ufia in the pack, Munster have good reason to be wary of this Exiles outfit.
As expected, coach Tony McGahan has made a clutch of changes. Out go Donncha O'Callaghan, Peter Stringer and James Coughlan, while Sam Tuitupou is nursing a hamstring injury and Paul Warwick is ruled out as a result of the heavy blow he took in the defeat to Toulon last Sunday.
Mick O'Driscoll starts in the second-row next to Paul O'Connell, Tomas O'Leary comes in at scrum-half, and Niall Ronan begins in the back-row next to Denis Leamy and David Wallace.
Lifeimi Mafi replaces his cousin Sam Tuitupou in midfield, with Denis Hurley brought on to the left wing and Johne Murphy switching to full-back.
Heineken Cup-wise, there is nothing at stake, but there will be plenty of motivation in Thomond Park this afternoon.
Munster will be looking to make a statement after last weekend's horror show, while London Irish know that a win in Thomond Park -- only Leicester have managed it before, in 2007 when Munster were already qualified -- would be a fantastic spur to continue their turnaround.
"The win against the Ospreys was fantastic, we worked hard and earned a result. We need to keep that momentum rolling," said Booth. "Munster is an extremely well resourced side and we expect it to be tough. We will fight tooth and nail to get a victory."
Munster are chasing a Challenge Cup spot, but this has the prospect of being an entertaining affair with the real do-or-die pressure gone, and while the visitors look certain to put it up to the home team, Munster's need for victory is greater.
MUNSTER -- J Murphy; D Howlett, K Earls, L Mafi, D Hurley; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; W du Preez, D Varley, J Hayes, M O'Driscoll, P O'Connell, D Wallace, N Ronan, D Leamy (capt). Reps: M Sherry, D Hurley, T Buckley, D O'Callaghan, J Coughlan, P Stringer, S Deasy, T Gleeson.
LONDON IRISH -- T Ojo; A Thompstone, E Seveali'i', S Mapusua (capt), S Tagicakibau; D Bowden, D Allinson; A Corbisiero, J Buckland, F Rautenbach, N Kennedy, M Garvey, G Stowers, J Gibson, C Hala'ufia.
Reps: B Blaney, D Murphy, P Ion, R Thorpe, K Roche, M Watson, R Lamb, P Hodgson.
Ref -- N Owens (Wales)
Munster v London Irish,
Live, Sky Sports Xtra (red button), 3.30