Reds can kick feisty Saints into touch
McGahan's men well equipped to have final say in grudge match
THERE is a definite edge to tonight's Heineken Cup showdown between Munster and Northampton at Thomond Park (8.0).
It is not just the customary motivation that comes with an English team travelling to Limerick in late January with a quarter-final agenda; this time the Saints arrive with a liberal helping of chips strewn across their collective shoulders.
Northampton have a serious gripe over the fact that they go into this crucial tie hampered by a five-day turnaround since last Sunday's bonus-point victory over Perpignan.
The 2000 champions wrote to tournament organisers ERC asking for the game to be moved but were turned down. And although Saints coach Jim Mallinder is, outwardly at least, playing down the lack-of-preparation factor, he is undoubtedly using it as a means of developing a siege mentality among his squad as they bid to lower the colours of Europe's top-ranked team at a venue where they have only suffered one Heineken Cup defeat.
In this, Mallinder has been helped by Northampton's local media, who have twisted the words of Munster coach Tony McGahan into a headline-grabbing taunt. McGahan was asked about the five-day factor earlier this week and replied, reasonably, that Munster have had to deal with similar issues and had "to get on with it and deal with it".
Though that response referred specifically to Munster, it was turned into, 'JUST DEAL WITH IT, SAINTS TOLD' in yesterday's 'Northampton Evening Telegraph', allowing Saints to draw on the same type of grudge factor which has served Munster well in the past -- such as in December's victory in Perpignan when one of the French players likened Munster to "an academy team".
A large dollop of spice then, heading into what should be a tasty encounter. Northampton know that only victory will be good enough to book their place in the last eight while Munster, two points clear of their opponents at the top of Pool 1, should be through on their current 20-point total but want to guarantee a home quarter-final.
McGahan's men are playing with a cohesion they lacked in the initial stages of the season, when the reintroduction and resting of front-line players was a mitigating factor.
The partnership of Jean de Villiers and Keith Earls has given them the midfield balance they lacked before December and they should have the edge on the feisty but functional Saints duo of Jon Clarke and former Munster man James Downey.
Full-back Ben Foden and winger Chris Ashton are the latest in a long line of English Premiership players to be hyped beyond the bounds of their achievements. However, while both have considerable attacking potential and must be monitored, the physicality and direct style of in-form Munster winger Denis Hurley could put a dent in Ashton's reputation.
Shane Geraghty had an excellent evening when Northampton won the pool opener between these sides in Franklin's Gardens, but the out-half is going to get the full attention of the Munster back row tonight, not to mention De Villiers running straight down his channel, and much will hinge on his capacity for dealing with the rigours of a winter's tale at Thomond.
The visitors have picked a big, bruiser-laden pack, with Courtney Lawes -- the second-row who could put Steve Borthwick out of his England misery -- starting on the blindside flank and Neil Best dropping to the bench. Lawes is another young player to come under the influence of the English media's hype machine after his performance against Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan last October and will have his fortitude tested tonight.
Munster should have the edge in the second and back rows -- although staying on the right side of referee Romain Poite's fitful whistling is a prerogative -- but the front row is an area where the home team will be attacked.
"Although we do know Munster have their strengths, there are positions where we will be looking to beat them," said Mallinder.
Euan Murray is up with Ulster's BJ Botha as one of the foremeost scrummaging tight-heads in the game and is one player who will not be bothered by the five-day turnaround after missing last Sunday's match due to this religious beliefs.
Marcus Horan makes a welcome return to the Munster bench, having not featured since October, and could well be called on to help counter the Murray threat. It falls to Wian du Preez to take on the Scot first up and the South African faces his greatest challenge during his short stint with Munster in his final game before returning to the Cheetahs.
Du Preez has been a big success during his three months in Limerick and is determined to end a rewarding experience in positive fashion.
"It'll be like a final to get through to the quarter-finals and I'd really love to go away on a winning note," said the loose-head. "If we win and we qualify then I'll put some money on Munster to win the competition. I'm going to follow Munster on TV now and I'll be backing them. Hopefully they'll get through to the final. I'll have a barbeque with my friends for the final and will be cheering Munster on."
Set-piece security is key to Munster's ambitions this evening and there is also a determination to prevent the defensive issues that surfaced in their last home Heineken Cup match, when Perpignan crossed for three tries.
Northampton have confidence from a 10-game winning run, a combative team and plenty of motivation. It should be enough to ensure a good contest, but is unlikely to be sufficient to garner the victory they crave.
MUNSTER -- P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, J de Villiers, D Hurley; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; W du Preez, D Fogarty, J Hayes; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt); A Quinlan, N Ronan, D Wallace. Reps: D Varley, M Horan, T Buckley, D Ryan, J Coughlan, P Stringer, L Mafi, I Dowling.
NORTHAMPTON -- B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, B Reihana; S Geraghty, L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt), E Murray; IF Lobbe, J Kruger; C Lawes, P Dowson, R Wilson. Reps: B Sharman, A Waller, B Mujati, C Day, N Best, A Dickens, S Myler, C Mayor.
REF -- R Poite (France).
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