Wednesday 7 December 2016

Zebo return can help to breathe life into Munster's flagging campaign

Published 05/03/2016 | 02:30

Zebo: Can provide the inspiration Photo: Sportsfile
Zebo: Can provide the inspiration Photo: Sportsfile

Away from the rugby, Munster's hierarchy appeared focused on the future. With Anthony Foley expected to remain as head coach for another season, it appears likely that the Reds will switch to an Ulster-style director of rugby arrangement in the very near future.

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As they attempt to modernise their approach off the field, the two-time European champions must ensure they don't take their eye off the ball on it.

They will look for a big southern hemisphere name - former All Black Todd Blackadder has been mentioned - but they will need Champions Cup rugby to attract a big gun and that is no longer a foregone conclusion at Thomond Park.

It could be argued that Foley's woes this season began at Rodney Parade when these teams last met in December. Back then, the former No 8 was happy with life after negotiating the World Cup with little fuss and had won his opening European game against Treviso.

The season appeared to be offering all sorts of possibilities, but a largely second-string side went to Wales and played like drains. The first XV lost to Leicester twice and their form has never quite recovered.

Sixth in the table and the lowest-ranked Irish province with just seven games remaining in the regular season, there is a clear danger that Foley's side could miss out, not only on the play-offs, but on Europe as well.

Their run in takes in visits to Dublin and Galway, but is not as harsh as some of their rivals'.

Tonight represents a big opportunity to not only pick up five crucial points in the race for Champions Cup places, but also allows Foley's men a chance to lay down a marker for the rest of the season.

By all accounts, Munster were blessed to get out of Italy with a win last weekend, saved as they were by Ian Keatley's late penalty which kept them on track.

Foley's hand is strengthened by the return of Simon Zebo who this week was encouraged to knuckle down by his old team-mate Ronan O'Gara, while Tommy O'Donnell is in from the start after jetting from Twickenham to Treviso last weekend.

The Ireland flanker has a job on his hands to convince Joe Schmidt that he is worthy of a starting spot against Italy.

Josh van der Flier has been held back from Leinster's side to face Ospreys, meaning he remains in pole position to start on this day week. O'Donnell has been unlucky, but for whatever reason he just doesn't seem able to prove his worth to the national coach.

Munster won't mind having him back, however, and it allows the highly-rated Jack O'Donoghue move to his preferred position of No 8 with Robin Copeland on the bench and Dave O'Callaghan on the blindside.

Stephen Archer makes a welcome return to the match-day 23 after his struggles with the neck injury that has ruled him out to date and he'll add to Foley's options in BJ Botha's continued absence.

Dragons coach Lyn Jones has named a strong side featuring Wales wing Hallam Amos, but his side have failed to win away all season and have little to play for as the run-in gets going.

Despite their struggles in recent months, the side Munster have selected looks more than strong enough to see off the Welsh region.

The Irish side's recent record at home is something that needs addressing, with their win over Stade Francais back in January their sole victory in five in Cork or Limerick and if they are to mount a challenge they'll need to address that stat.

Foley will hope that Keatley will be lifted by the match-winning role last week and the out-half could do with a run of good games to get the Munster backline moving.

He again partners Duncan Williams in the absence of Conor Murray and the injured Tomás O'Leary and the Corkman is determined to prove his worth and get the desired result.

"Nobody wants to be a professional trainer," he conceded. "You're here to play matches and to turn up on Mondays or Tuesdays and be told you're not playing you're just there training for the week, that would annoy anyone and in particular me.

"The Dragons are a tough team, with good breakdown, a good physical pack, two good sevens. If you give them a sniff at the breakdown, they'll turn you over. I think they have the highest breakdown turnovers in the league. They taught us a lesson over there earlier in the season so we need to stay on top of them and keep playing our game."

Verdict: Munster

MUNSTER - A Conway; D Sweetnam, F Saili, R Scannell, S Zebo; I Keatley, D Williams; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, J Ryan; M Chisholm, B Holland (capt); D O'Callaghan, T O'Donnell, J O'Donoghue. Reps: M Sherry, J Cronin, S Archer, D Foley, R Copeland, C Sheridan, J Holland, D Johnston.
NEWPORT GWENT DRAGONS - C Meyer; A Hewitt, A Hughes, A Warren, H Amos; J Tovey, C Davies; P Price, TR Thomas (capt), B Harris; C Hll, M Screech; N Crosswell, N Cudd, L Evans. Reps: E Dee, S Knight, L Fairbrother, R Landman, E Jackson, S Pretorius, A O'Brien, R Wardle.
Ref - M Mitrea (Italy)

Munster v NG Dragons,

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