O'Gara tops all-star cast for audition
Munster out-half leads Ireland hopefuls in bid to catch Kidney's eye
A FORTNIGHT ago, Jonathan Sexton scored 22 points against the Scarlets and two days later found himself reinstated in the Ireland No 10 jersey for the successful trip to Twickenham.
Perhaps it was always going to happen, but that Magners League performance for Leinster at the RDS certainly did Sexton's candidature no harm. This evening, the man Sexton replaced at out-half leads Munster in their Magners League clash against Welsh opposition, when they take on the Dragons at Rodney Parade (6.30).
Sexton had a key role in two of Ireland's three tries last weekend in a strong overall performance before Ronan O'Gara was brought on to steer Declan Kidney's men to victory.
As the man in possession, Sexton is favourite to retain the jersey for next weekend's visit of Wales to Croke Park but O'Gara is in superb form and will know a dominant performance this evening will make a compelling argument for his inclusion.
The out-half has a strong team around him. Peter Stringer is a familiar partner at scrum-half, Lifeimi Mafi and the departing Jean de Villiers fill the centre slots with Doug Howlett on the right wing and Paul Warwick at full-back. Denis Hurley is on the left wing as the Irish member of a three-quarter line packed with overseas ability. Up front, Marcus Horan gets the opportunity to continue his recent good form at loose-head while Tony Buckley will want to build from a decent cameo off the bench at Twickenham.
Just as O'Gara is in audition mode, so too is Buckley for, if the big Shannon man struggles at scrum-time, it will weaken his case for next weekend; although his main rivals, Tom Court and Mike Ross, are not starting at tight-head for their provinces.
Denis Fogarty starts at hooker and will be determined to lift his line-out throwing to the high levels he has achieved with his all-round game this season. Mick O'Driscoll and his second-row partner Billy Holland, together with flanker Alan Quinlan and No 8 James Coughlan, will have to monitor the line-out presence of the giant Luke Charteris, who is also chasing selection for next Saturday's clash at Croke Park after an impressive outing off the bench in the defeat to France.
The seventh-placed Dragons are three positions and five points behind Munster and have lost their last three Magners League games, having not beaten Munster in this competition since 2007.
However, there is more steel to them this season under Paul Turner, particularly at home where they have beaten the other three Irish provinces already this season as well as drawing with Ulster at Ravenhill in their last league match. They have pace on the left wing in Aled Brew and full-back Martyn Thomas, but the visitors have many more game-breakers in their ranks this evening.
Mafi and De Villiers looked very dangerous in Munster's last win over Edinburgh and the recently re-signed Howlett is in top form. Tommy O'Donnell starts at open-side and if the Munster back-row can dominate the breakdown, the visitors have the capacity -- with Stringer's speed of delivery -- to do some serious damage.
"This is a big game for us. This is a very tight league, very competitive and our ambition is to be involved in the play-offs," said Quinlan. "Dragons have improved immensely from when we played them; they've beaten Leinster here and last time out they drew in Ravenhill. That makes them a very good side."
If Dragons are to entertain notions of an upset, Charteris needs to show his international credentials and coach Paul Turner is backing him to do so.
"You would have thought he (Charteris) would be starting against Ireland in Dublin," said Turner. "Luke played well for us in Ravenhill a couple of weeks ago. It would be great if he can put in another performance against Munster. He played out of his skin on that Friday night (against France) and should go straight in.
"His work rate is second to none, his general work rate and defence are very good. It would be good if Wales started throwing the ball near to him and he could win the odd line-out."
However, even with Charteris doing well out of touch, the visitors look too powerful and with O'Gara looking to make a powerful statement with his passing as well as his kicking, the league champions could win in some style.
DRAGONS -- M Thomas; W Harries, M Watkins, A Smith, A Brew; J Tovey, W Evans; H Gustafson, T Willis (Capt), B Castle; A Jones, L Charteris; D Lydiate, G Thomas, L Evans. Reps: S Jones, P Palmer, R Sidoli, H Macdonald, T Riley, J Arlidge, J Leadbeater.
MUNSTER -- P Warwick; D Howlett, L Mafi, J de Villiers, D Hurley; R O'Gara (Capt), P Stringer; M Horan, D Fogarty, T Buckley; M O'Driscoll, B Holland; A Quinlan, T O'Donnell, J Coughlan. Reps: D Varley, J Brugnaut, I Nagle, N Williams, D Williams, S Deasy, C O'Boyle.
REF -- D Phillips (Ireland).
Dragons v Munster
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