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Monday 21 April 2014

New Munster style can reap reward -- if they achieve parity up front

The dress rehearsals of the Pro12 are over and this weekend is the grand opening. In the Heineken Cup, coaches put out their first-choice teams and there is no sign of the rotation policies that are part and parcel of the early games in the season.

Last weekend's titanic struggle against Leinster at the Aviva showed up the problems facing Rob Penney at Munster. His selection for Paris against Racing Metro owes much to fitness concerns, but also displays an imaginative approach. The Munster pack today will be bigger and stronger.

Every finger south of Portlaoise will be crossed for Paul O'Connell (pictured below) as the big man makes his return. It is good news for player, coach and team and significant given the injury to Donncha O'Callaghan.

By putting Billy Holland in the second-row, the coach has been able to move Donnacha Ryan to the back-row. The result is the biggest and strongest pack they'll have put out this season. Penney has decided to fight fire with fire against the massive Racing forwards.

The plan has one flaw, which could destabilise the strategy. The injury to Wian du Preez means that Dave Kilcoyne has the doubtful privilege of facing up to Luc Ducalcon in the scrum.

As Connacht discovered last week in Belfast, a front-row under pressure sends ripples throughout the rest of the team and ensures defeat. If Munster survive in the scrum, then the odds could swing in their favour.

Penney had another and pleasant surprise up his sleeve. Instead of choosing between Ronan O'Gara and Ian Keatley at No 10, he has included them both, with Denis Hurley losing out.

Even the injury to Keith Earls is a plus, as Munster field an inside and outside combination in the centre and James Downey looks like he has the brawn to straighten the line.

The Racing back line will not scare the men in red. Any team that has Mirco Bergamasco at 13 is not overly laden with midfield talent. Meanwhile, former Bath fly-half Olly Barkley makes his first start for Racing.

The new Munster style could prosper if they can achieve parity up front. However, win or lose, all eyes will be on O'Gara. The great man faces contract renegotiations at the end of the season and he needs a good campaign to hold his national deal, which is a multiple of the provincial contract.

I have no doubt that he will rise to the challenge and today will prove that even at this stage of his career, he is better than the pretenders to the throne.

Keatley's goal-kicking may be outstanding and his physical presence is bigger than his team-mate, but he is still a vastly inferior restarter and his tactical awareness has yet to be tested.

If he can adapt to the full-back role, then his career could be on an upward trajectory.

Meanwhile, back in Dublin, great minds think alike, it seems, as Joe Schmidt has also opted to put his reserve out-half, Ian Madigan, at full-back. In Leinster's case the choice is a bit more contentious, given that the superb Isa Nacewa was an option.

Nevertheless, unlike Ulster, there is a real possibility that two Irish provinces will put sophisticated strike forces onto the field today.

It is hard to see anything other than a home win at the RDS in Leinster's clash with Exeter Chiefs, but Fergus McFadden has a chance to nail down the Gordon D'Arcy slot and Andrew Conway can show that he has a defence to add to his undoubted attacking flair.

elusive

Exeter will be led by a Munster man in Tom Hayes and a No 10 hailing from Ulster in Gareth Steenson. The fly-half may kick goals, but tries will almost certainly be elusive.

It would be the shock of the round were Leinster to lose and this match is about preparation for the bigger tasks ahead. Most eyes will be on the other pool game in Scotland, where Edinburgh take on Saracens.

Every point dropped by the Londoners will count for double in Leinster's favour when the final stages of the pool are reached.

Interestingly, the Scots snubbed the suggestion that the return game be played in Cape Town. Even the lure of filthy lucre was not going to sway Mick Bradley, which means that he intends showing that last year's run to the semi-finals was no flash in the plan.

With Connacht sure to bring home the bacon from Italy against Zebre, it could be a big day for the Irish provinces.

Paris will be crucial for Munster. A win over Racing could diminish French interest and make qualification a tad easier and this is a group where two teams could qualify. It's a long road to the final in Dublin, but today could be a good start.

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