Discipline the key for Munster in season-defining semi-final showdown
Over the course of a long and, at times, difficult season, Anthony Foley has remained on an even keel. Today, at Thomond Park, his first campaign will be defined.
Europe didn't go to plan, but victory over the Ospreys would mean all roads lead north for a Munster side who have hit form in the last number of months and would have no fear of a final. Lose, and the old questions that circled around the dreadful defeat to Saracens will resurface.
Since that week of introspection and despair, things have begun to look up for the Reds, who used their absence from the latter stages of the Champions Cup to build on the momentum generated during the Six Nations and have a strong squad available.
Sure, Tommy O'Donnell misses out and Foley was sweating on Simon Zebo and Peter O'Mahony up until the last minute, but the return of Keith Earls and Donnacha Ryan has strengthened his options considerably.
Today, they face a hardy Ospreys side with recent experience of winning at Thomond Park. Already, Steve Tandy's side have done the double over Munster, but they might find the going harder this afternoon.
Gone are the days of the Welsh region being the pretty boys of the Pro12. The new-look Ospreys are a serious outfit, led by a Lions captain in Alun-Wyn Jones and guided around the park by the Wales half-backs Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar.
Last weekend, they caused Connacht as many problems as they have endured all season in the first half, serving a warning to today's opponents.
Their scrum is strong, lineout highly functional and their backline is full of threats - not least the one Webb brings from the base of the scrum.
What better inspiration for the undecided to make the pilgrimage?
Ticket sales were initially slow, but picked up as the week went on, and entertainment seems guaranteed.
Discipline will be the key to success. If Munster can manage the Ospreys back-row of Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric and Dan Baker without getting on Nigel Owens' wrong side, then it will be half the battle. They will look to get in Biggar's face and disrupt Webb's ball, but in doing so must keep the penalty count down.
On the other side, they will look to summon the years of cup rugby experience and manage the game.
Ian Keatley will be asked to put them in the right areas and the pack will look to dominate in tight. Earls and Zebo may not see much ball in the wide open spaces.
"We're getting there," Foley said. "Our use of ball is pretty good, set-piece is up there and competing with the best in the competition.
"It's important to look after the ball first, to win it and look after it, we're doing that. Our backs are looking after it pretty well, they're running good lines off one another.
"There's nothing being given up easily and we're putting teams under pressure to defend. Then it's about managing the game and seeing where best it suits us to play the next phase."
If they can do that, they'll have a real chance but this one looks like going to the wire.
Munster by a nose.
MUNSTER - F Jones; K Earls, A Smith, D Hurley, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, E Guinazu, S Archer; Donnacha Ryan, P O'Connell; P O'Mahony (capt), P Butler, CJ Stander. Reps: D Casey, J Ryan, BJ Botha, B Holland, J O'Donoghue, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, R O'Mahony.
OSPREYS - D Evans; J Hassler, B John, J Matavesi, E Walker; D Biggar, R Webb; N Smith, S Baldwin, D Arhip; T Ardron, AW Jones (capt); D Lydiate, J Tipuric, D Baker. Reps: S Parry, M Thomas, A Jarvis, R Thornton, J King, T Habberfield, S Davies, J Spratt.
Ref - N Owens (Wales)
Munster v Ospreys,
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