Tony Ward: Sensational switch would suit Ian Madigan and Munster
Published 23/05/2015 | 02:30
I'm probably tempting fate by saying it, but something's stirring in Munster. For a number of reasons the province that paved the way in Europe is on the verge of striking back and returning to glory days not too long passed.
To be fair, two European Cup semi-finals in the last three years is hardly the sign of a side that has lost its way entirely.
But this is Munster, champions in 2006 and '08, and the summit is still well within their compass.
So there's plenty of pressure on Anthony Foley today as Munster - playing in Limerick for the first time in eight weeks - take on one of the two teams to have done the double over them this season.
Since being beaten out the gate at Saracens in the Champions Cup in what was certainly the most insipid European performance I can recall, the southern province (on the back of a warm-weather training camp) have knuckled down and gone about their business in a low-key way.
They are the form team going into a home semi-final of the Pro12. Winning the competition is not essential, but it would provide a great springboard for the regeneration of Munster - which I really believe could lie ahead.
The newly assembled indigenous management team under Foley has swum with the sharks and lived to tell the tale. Brian Walsh, Ian Costello, Mick O'Driscoll and Jerry Flannery will be much the better for the experience of their first season.
To finish with a trophy - the main domestic honour - would be the icing on the cake, but even if they miss out, Munster are on the right track.
Secondly, the new signings smack of great common sense - in particular, I refer to Francis Saili and Tyler Bleyendaal, the latter effectively a new recruit after his injury-ravaged first season in Ireland.
Add the returning Tomás O'Leary and at 9, 10 and 12 the cupboard suddenly looks a damn sight more plentiful.
There are other reasons to be cheerful: Jordan Coghlan, impressing at centre having been a very effective No 8 with Clongowes, is en route from the Leinster Academy.
Of those emerging from within the ranks, Jack O'Donoghue is a versatile back-row with serious potential.
Diarmuid McCarthy, a precocious attacking talent in the Keith Earls/Luke Fitzgerald mould, is now back on board and firing on all cylinders.
Then you have Ronan O'Mahony - boosted by his first senior contract - and Robin Copeland. If Copeland can get an injury-free run, then watch this Munster career finally take off.
In more immediate terms, Keith Earls is looking sharp, hungry and ready to make the step up for World Cup inclusion, even in the most cluttered area of the national squad.
I still believe there is a case for playing him at centre for Munster, but I accept the reluctance to bring him closer the action for Ireland. Hopefully, there is still enough time in such a promising career to develop into a Test-quality midfielder.
At schoolboy level in the early noughties, Earls, Fitzgerald and McCarthy - at St Munchin's, Blackrock and Castletroy respectively - represented three of the most natural and exciting talents ever to emerge.
Unfortunately, it is anything but a grand highway to the top and, as all three have discovered in differing ways, it is a road with many twists and turns along the way.
So I'll not tempt fate by harping on but with McCarthy in the Ireland Sevens squad and both Fitzgerald and Earls pressing for World Cup involvement, they may yet deliver on that vast potential.
With Munster there is also the massive presence of Paul O'Connell. If he stays, his role in re-establishing the Reds as realistic European contenders will be incalculable.
There will always be injuries, with Tommy O'Donnell the latest case in point, but Foley is assembling a strength in depth not seen since '08 or thereabouts.
The biggest issue is still the combination at 10, 12 and 13.
I don't want to cause another civil war on this island, but if I were Ian Madigan (pictured) I would be sizing my options meticulously, ruling nothing in or nothing out. The fit looks good and I'll leave it at that.
One final point: the soon-to-be-opened state-of-the-art training facilities at the University of Limerick will bring Munster together on a day-to-day basis for the first time. That can only help.
Back to today and the visit of the Ospreys to Limerick. The Welsh side boast a pretty impressive record at Thomond Park, with two wins, a draw and just a single defeat in the last four trips to Thomond.
The most astonishing statistic, and perhaps most worrying from a Munster perspective, is that since that last great day in '08 they have won just one of the nine semi-finals they have played.
On the plus side, that lone last-four victory was over the Ospreys in Limerick in 2011.
All signs point to another extremely tight tussle set to go to the wire.
Steve Tandy can boast class in abundance, particularly in the guise of Alun-Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar and Dan Lydiate.
The half-back battle of wits between the Welsh pair and Ian Keatley plus the outstanding Conor Murray will be match-deciding. Murray is on fire but then so too is Webb.
The 16th man could have a part to play, although the soundings are that Thomond will not be a sell-out, which is disconcerting.
I accept that filling 26,000 seats at this time of year is a big ask but were it a Champions Cup play-off there would be no such problem.
With just one defeat in the last ten and 22 points out of a possible 25 in the final straight, the form is good, confidence high and soundings from the camp low-key. It is a Munster build-up at its best.
I take the gate to top 20,000 and Keatley to steer Munster home.