Earls can breathe life into Munster
THE challenge presented by big, bold Jamie Roberts of Cardiff Blues to the Munster defence tonight is the ideal preparation for the critically important European Cup collisions that lie ahead.
Roberts – such an accomplished and formidable force for Cardiff, Wales and the Lions – offers Munster an intriguing brush with genuinely top-class competition.
His rampaging work in central midfield will ensure that Munster either reach top competitive mode a week ahead of their Heineken Cup game against Edinburgh, or suffer serious consequences.
But if they can nullify Roberts' influence, which is a real possibility given this is his first outing since injuring his elbow playing for Wales at the start of December, they will have done much to secure the win against a side who have not triumphed on Munster soil since 2007.
Cardiff's game plan will not be particularly difficult to predict. They will look to make Munster do most of the running and will not even entertain the idea of playing rugby in their own half.
In that regard, full-back Jason Tovey and out-half Rhys Patchell will test Munster's back three with bomb after bomb, which should play into the hosts' hands perfectly.
Munster will, as a consequence, seek to get the ball into Keith Earls' hands as often as possible so as to launch counter-attacks and stretch the Blues' defence, thereby creating space out wide for the likes of Doug Howlett and Felix Jones to exploit.
Earls' presence in midfield is a particularly welcome one for Munster. They have lacked a little inventiveness in midfield in his absence and while he has yet to truly convince as an outside centre, he is Munster's best option there at present.
After a bright start to the season, Casey Laulala has not been convincing in the role and hasn't been able to provide that much needed 'step' in midfield to trouble defences.
If Earls can provide that missing ingredient, it could be critical to the success of the season.
As well as giving Earls a run out tonight, this game offers Munster coach Rob Penney the opportunity to return flanker Sean Dougall to the side after his absence with a knee injury, sustained against Cardiff in the sides' meeting earlier this season.
The openside flanker is one of the nine players rewarded with a new contract this week and after being worried his injury might mitigate against him, he is delighted to get the opportunity to build on the positive impression he made in the early part of the season.
"I was a little worried about my future when I got injured because I was on a one-year contract," admitted Dougall.
"Thankfully, I got my chance to impress during the pre-season games and in the early part of the season and I was seriously delighted to be approached over Christmas and offered an extension. I want to make up for lost time now, starting against Cardiff."
How Dougall measures up against Wales captain Sam Warburton will be an interesting head-to-head. Cardiff base a lot of their forward play on short offloading, with Warburton key to this aspect of their play. If Dougall can disrupt that rhythm, Cardiff will struggle.
"He's a great player and it's always great to measure yourself up against the top players," Dougall added. "I'm still learning my trade at this level and it will be awesome to be face-to-face with a guy of his reputation and standing.
"But you have to back yourself too, and I want to make a big impression, especially after being rewarded with a new contract."
In essence, this fixture is a stand-alone one for Munster. Cardiff's unique way of approaching the game will be different to anything Penney's men will face when they resume their European adventure next weekend.
As such, the importance of the game cannot be measured in the final result tonight. The true worth of the match will only be known in a fortnight's time when Munster conclude the Heineken Cup Pool stage of their season.
The absence of a couple of marquee players from the Munster line-up – notably Simon Zebo and Peter O'Mahony – is an indication of just how important the next two weeks are. Both players have played a lot of rugby this season and are obviously being rested ahead of the Edinburgh game.
Munster's season, just like Leinster's, hinges on how successful they are in the Heineken Cup. That is not to denigrate the importance of the Celtic League, but on weekends like this, the bigger picture assumes greater importance.
Munster – F Jones; D Howlett, K Earls, J Downey, J Murphy; R O'Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, S Archer; D Foley, D Ryan; T O'Donnell, S Dougall, J Coughlan. Reps: S Henry, W du Preez, BJ Botha, B Holland, CJ Stander, D Williams, I Keatley, C Laulala.
Cardiff Blues – J Tovey; O Williams, R Smith, J Roberts, H Robinson; R Patchell, L Jones; S Hobbs, R Williams, B Bourrust: B Davies, L Reed; J Navidi, S Warburton, R Copeland. Reps: K Dacey, P Tamba, S Andrews, J Down, L Hamilton, A Walker, C Sweeney, L Halfpenny.
Ref – N Owens
Munster v Cardiff Blues,
Live, RTE2, 7.30