O'Connell in wings as full-strength Munster look toshine in Welsh dress rehearsal
MUNSTER have selected a side containing eight players involved in Ireland's win over Argentina last weekend for this evening's Magners League clash with Cardiff Blues at Thomond Park (5.0).
On a weekend of widespread sporting cancellations, the Limerick pitch was given the all-clear after a lunchtime inspection yesterday and, barring a severe deterioration, Tony McGahan's men will get the chance to consolidate their lead at the top of the table by going up against the third-placed Blues.
Denis Leamy leads out a powerful team and one that is likely to closely resemble the side that faces the Ospreys at the same venue in the Heineken Cup the following weekend. An all-international pack includes the Ireland second-row partnership of Mick O'Driscoll and Donncha O'Callaghan.
Paul O'Connell is on the bench and, as well as O'Driscoll has been doing in his injury-enforced absence, the prospect of the club captain making his first Munster appearance since January is an enticing one for supporters and management alike.
Following the problems that complicated his recovery from the groin injury sustained in the Six Nations, O'Connell's return is timely given the back-to-back encounters with the Ospreys and the need for game time before the Six Nations.
The back-row of Leamy, Niall Ronan and Alan Quinlan provides a nice blend of speed, strength and savvy, while Tony Buckley gets the chance to build on an encouraging display against the Pumas and will need to be on top of his game against Lions loose-head Gethin Jenkins.
Ronan O'Gara forms an experienced and in-form half-back combination with Peter Stringer, but Tomas O'Leary will be looking for a chance to state his case for a return to the starting XV against the Ospreys.
There is a good mix in midfield also, where Keith Earls provides guile next to Sam Tuitupou's grunt, while full-back Johne Murphy forms a muscular back three alongside Lifeimi Mafi and Denis Hurley.
As well as O'Connell and O'Leary, the Munster bench is packed with proven potency in the form of David Wallace, Paul Warwick, Barry Murphy and John Hayes, while hooker Mike Sherry and prop Dave Ryan are players heading in the right direction.
Cardiff, who face a tough Heineken Cup assignment in Northampton next weekend as they seek to close the gap on the Saints at the top of Pool 1, have named their heavy hitters for Limerick and look particularly strong in the back-row and midfield.
Casey Laulala and Tom Shanklin form a strong-running centre partnership and one that will give little away in defence, while the back-row of Ma'ama Molitika, Sam Warburton and Xavier Rush will put it up to Munster's trio.
At out-half, Dan Parks will test Munster's back three with his kicking game and can be relied on to convert the vast majority of penalty chances. Inside him, Richie Rees is growing in stature and, though still firmly behind Mike Phillips as Wales' first-choice scrum-half, has shown himself to be a dangerous operator.
The Blues have never won in Thomond -- although they have beaten Munster twice in Cork -- but have won six of their last seven league fixtures.
Munster's defeat at the Dragons last time out was only their second league defeat this season (Leinster's win in Lansdowne Road was the other) but that side travelled to Rodney Parade last weekend without their Ireland contingent and Cardiff coach Dai Young believes that result was "a blip".
"They will be hurting, but I imagine they will brush that under the carpet as they were missing a lot of players and didn't play very well," said Young.
"One thing Munster don't do is lose many home games. It was a blip, but they've been there before and will be determined to put it right."
At the start of the season, Young claimed the Irish sides had lost their aura since their all-conquering 2009 campaign and he struck a similarly confident note ahead of today's clash.
"Munster is always a tough place to go play but our players certainly get up for it and we haven't got a bad record there," he said. "We enjoy going there."
This has the makings of an excellent, contest with the added incentive of seeing O'Connell return to action. Cardiff have too much international experience and ability to make it easy for the home side but Munster have the capacity lay down a Welsh marker.
MUNSTER -- J Murphy; L Mafi, K Earls, S Tuitipou, D Hurley; R O'Gara, P Stringer; W du Preez, D Varley, T Buckley; M O'Driscoll, D O'Callaghan; A Quinlan, N Ronan, D Leamy (capt). Reps: M Sherry, Dave Ryan, J Hayes, P O'Connell, D Wallace, T O'Leary, P Warwick, B Murphy.
CARDIFF BLUES -- C Czekaj; R Mustoe, C Laulala, T Shanklin G Evans; D Parks, R Rees; G Jenkins, G Williams, T Filise; M Paterson, P Tito; M Molitika, S Warburton, X Rush. Reps: R Williams, T Davies, S Hobbs, B Griffiths, B White, T Slater, C Sweeney, D Hewitt.
REF -- A Rolland (Ireland).
Munster v Cardiff Blues
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