De Villiers and Earls central to Red cause
Published 09/01/2010 | 05:00
With Leinster, Ulster and Connacht forced to look on as their matches disappeared beneath an avalanche of snow and ice, Munster provide the last hope of seeing some Irish-based Magners League shenanigans this weekend.
The champions' clash with the Scarlets is due to go ahead tomorrow, although visiting coach Nigel Davies may have preferred a reprieve, given the Welsh outfit's recent humiliating defeats against Irish opposition and the strength of the Munster side.
Tony McGahan has picked all of his available international players with the exception of tight-head prop John Hayes in a team that shows nine changes (two positional) to the one which lost in Ulster last weekend.
On the basis that home coach McGahan is using this match as preparation for the forthcoming Heineken Cup clashes with Treviso and Northampton, this is Munster's strongest available selection and one that features an intriguing midfield combination of Jean de Villiers and Keith Earls.
Since losing his place for the back-to-back Heineken Cup meetings with Perpignan in December, De Villiers has been on top form, scoring a try in each of his last three outings.
Neither the Lifeimi Mafi-De Villiers nor the Mafi-Earls midfield combinations have gelled properly, and it makes sense to try out the De Villiers-Earls partnership, which looks to have tremendous potential.
From an Ireland perspective, De Villiers' arrival at Munster was not ideal if it meant keeping Earls out of the centre, where he represents the best cover for Brian O'Driscoll. However, playing alongside the big South African could work out very well for Earls, as they look a nicely balanced pairing, with De Villiers' direct style complemented by the Limerick man's powers of evasion.
It also allows the in-form Denis Hurley to continue on the left wing: Hurley's consistency makes him a live contender for a place in Ireland's Six Nations squad later this month.
Ronan O'Gara and Tomas O'Leary resume their half-back combination, with Paul Warwick relocating to full-back after a mixed display at out-half in Ravenhill, while Doug Howlett is in his customary right-wing slot.
As expected, David Wallace has been asked to play at No 8 in the absence of long-term injury victim Denis Leamy, with Niall Ronan at openside and Alan Quinlan back on the blindside having recovered from a knock he sustained against Perpignan. Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan resume their second-row partnership, while Denis Fogarty returns to hooker with Damien Varley on the bench.
Injuries to Rory Best and Jerry Flannery have thrown the focus onto Ireland's hooking strength-in-depth and Varley, Fogarty, his brother John at Leinster, Connacht's Sean Cronin and the Ulster pair of Nigel Brady and Andy Kyriacou have all impressed.
With Flannery expected to return this month and Best due back in March, Ireland look very well catered for in this position looking ahead to next year's World Cup.
Wian du Preez starts at loose-head prop, while Tony Buckley gets the opportunity to lay down a marker in Hayes' absence after his unhappy night in Ravenhill, when he was blown away by Tom Court in the scrums.
It is an immensely powerful selection and one that should fancy its chances against a Scarlets team that ended a four-game losing streak by defeating the Dragons in Newport last weekend, but was destroyed by Leinster in their both Heineken Cup meetings last month.
Jon Davies and Sean Lamont will present a decent test of the De Villiers-Earls midfield and captain David Lyons is a powerful presence off the base of the scrum, but Stephen Jones is a notable absentee at out-half after hurting his shoulder at Rodney Parade.
Munster have not lost on home soil for 13 matches in all competitions and no Welsh team has triumphed in Munster since Cardiff won in Cork on October 5, 2007. A daunting prospect for the Scarlets, but Davies claims his side are not overawed by the test.
"It is a huge challenge for us," he said. "Munster have a massive reputation and often that can beat you before you get on the park. We have got to be mindful of that."
Davies has backed namesake Jon to become a major player for Wales after the burly 21-year-old made his Test debut in November.
"Jon is showing some great form," said the Scarlets coach. "The big difference between us and the Dragons on New Year's Eve was the midfield."
Cardiff's Lions star Jamie Roberts is a considerable obstacle to Davies' international aspirations but the youngster has the pace and power to put the Scarlets on the front foot tomorrow, and his confrontation with De Villiers should make for compelling viewing.
However, once the home side can establish a solid scrummaging platform, they look to hold advantages across the park and with the Heineken Cup whiff in their nostrils again, the Scarlets could be on the end of a comprehensive beating.
MUNSTER -- P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, J de Villiers, D Hurley; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; W du Preez, D Fogarty, T Buckley; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt); A Quinlan, N Ronan, D Wallace. Reps: D Varley, S Archer, D Ryan, J Coughlan, P Stringer, L Mafi, I Dowling.
SCARLETS -- D Evans; L Williams, S Lamont, J Davies, A Fenby; R Priestland, M Roberts; P John, K Owens, D Manu; D Welch, D Day; R McCusker, J Edwards, D Lyons (capt). Reps: J Corsi, E Phillips, L Reed, R Pugh, G Davies, M Stoddart, G Maule.
REF -- N Paterson (Scotland)
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