Thursday 8 December 2016

David Kelly: Munster's Champions Cup race starts here

Published 19/02/2016 | 02:30

Tommy O’Donnell is one of three Munster players released from international commitments for today’s trip to Glasgow Photo: Sportsfile
Tommy O’Donnell is one of three Munster players released from international commitments for today’s trip to Glasgow Photo: Sportsfile

More than most Pro12 outfits, Glasgow Warriors have offered themselves up as a bellwether for Munster's struggles to recapture their glory years.

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Tonight, as more farcical pitch woes force the temporarily homeless champions to move another game - this time to Rugby Park in Kilmarnock - Glasgow will be striving to deepen those travails.

Those adamant that Munster's problems remain of a temporary nature, rather than anything potentially lasting, will point to the fact that the Irish side did actually reach the final of this competition last season.

The startling manner, though, in how they were brushed aside by Gregor Townsend's potent mixture of pace and power, sprinkled with a modicum of outside influences, offered a retort to the eternal optimists.

Glasgow, much less convincingly, and in a defeat which still rankles with Munster folk, had also ended their Pro12 ambitions a year earlier in a controversial semi-final, a stage Munster also reached in Europe.

This season, a collection of mostly underwhelming performances saw them fail to reach the European knock-out stages and, aside from rare glimpses of form, their Pro12 troubles have genuinely raised fears that they may not qualify at all for next year's blue riband.

That would be a nightmare scenario for a province whose recent history has been built upon the foundations of European involvement and, with financial stresses continuing to mount, Challenge Cup involvement would represent a significant backward step.

Regardless of how the pessimists and optimists square off, the table will not lie at season's end and, although the top seven will be guaranteed qualification, Munster's current sixth-placed status does not offer them any lasting certainty if their form and results continue to go south.

Glasgow themselves have underachieved this season, struggling both domestically and in Europe to consolidate last season's refreshing breakthrough; favourites here, they currently lie seven points behind Munster with a game in hand.

A win against the grain of form for Munster, in contrast, would create at least a 12-point gap which would offer a decent swathe of breathing space. Ospreys, currently sandwiched between this duo on 37 points (but with no games in hand on either), are also involved in this squabble.

"It's huge," admits assistant coach Ian Costello. "There is a battle for top six. It is very tight and we have to make sure we don't lose touching distance to the top four.

"This week we are playing the team that beat us in the final last season. They are an excellent attacking side.

Important

"We know the threats that they pose and it is very, very important we stay ahead of them in the table and ahead of the Ospreys. That is very much our focus, but we got to stay within touching distance of the top four play-offs as well.

"I am sure there is plenty of outside speculation. We have put a narrow focus on these two weeks with Ospreys and Glasgow just below us.

"We were very disappointed with the Ospreys' loss, but any of the pressure on us this week is external. We know we have to secure a European spot. That is very important."

A further balm to the optimists, those still questing league honours with a late play-off run, can be glimpsed in Munster's immediate appointments before the interprovincial against Leinster as they face Italian opposition twice and the two weakest Welsh outfits - all eminently winnable, even in these uncertain times. Ironically, tonight's selection posits a glimpse of the future for Munster, in that all 15 of their starters are Irish-born, 12 of them Academy graduates, while six of the eight replacements are also home-grown.

Whether they can help to provide a glimpse of that future in the now is, well, uncertain; despite the fact that Tommy O'Donnell is released from international commitments and both James Cronin and Donnacha Ryan also start, Glasgow's side looks much stronger on paper. Sean Lamont, Gordon Reid, Tim Swinson and Duncan Weir return from Scottish duty for Townsend's men.

Verdict: Glasgow

Glasgow - P Murchie; T Naiyaravoro, G Bryce, P Horne, S Lamont; D Weir, A Price; G Reid, J Malcolm, S Puafisi, T Swinson, L Nakarawa, R Harley, C Fusaro, J Strauss (capt). Reps: C Fenton, J Yanuyanutawa, Z Fagerson, G Peterson, S Favaro, G Hart, F Lyle, R Hughes.
Munster - A Conway; D Sweetnam, D Johnston, R Scannell, R O'Mahony; I Keatley, T O'Leary; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, J Ryan; D Ryan, B Holland (capt), J O'Donoghue, T O'Donnell, R Copeland.
Reps - M Sherry, J Cronin, M Sagario, D Foley, C Oliver, D Williams, J Holland, C Bohane.
ref - B Whitehouse (WRU)

Glasgow Warriors v Munster,
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