Munster have the firepower to cement top spot
FOR the second successive week, Munster face a top-of-the-table clash as the Pro12 leaders take on the latest challengers in the Ospreys, who leap-frogged Glasgow last weekend.
Unfortunately for the competition, what should be a showpiece meeting of two of the league's best teams has been shorn of some of its allure given the timing of the fixture. Munster must do without five front-liners, and their visitors are forced to cope without 13 internationals.
So the squad strength of Wales and Ireland's form sides are tested to the limit, and the Ospreys team named by Steve Tandy contains plenty of unfamiliar faces. Munster, however, have a core of internationals and experienced players in their 23 and will be looking to pull clear at the top with a big win.
That said, these are the kind of matches that Munster struggled to raise their game for last season and the Ospreys took two points home from Thomond Park in March when they held Munster to a 13-13 draw during the Six Nations.
There are plenty of players in Rob Penney's side with something to prove, and the New Zealander will be hoping they can take it out on the visitors.
Having been left out of Joe Schmidt's November squad, Felix Jones, Ian Keatley and Dave Kilcoyne will want big displays, while this week's clash is exactly when the coach will be looking for Casey Laulala and BJ Botha to provide leadership.
Donncha O'Callaghan is another who will be looking to lay down a marker after being called up to the international squad as cover and then released for this game, while James Coughlan must make do with a place on the bench despite requesting to be sent back to his province for game time.
Penney has opted to leave CJ Stander in situ after his abrasive displays in recent weeks, and the South African No 8 can use the upcoming fixtures to cement his place in the team for the back-to-back Heineken Cup clashes with Perpignan next month.
Andrew Conway's bruised ribs rule the former Leinster man out and Ronan O'Mahony starts on the wing. James Downey is another casualty; his absence allows Ivan Dineen to continue at inside-centre.
Having secured an excellent win in a hotly contested clash with Glasgow last Friday, Penney will be hoping his charges can back it up despite the absence of Paul O'Connell, Conor Murray, Mike Sherry, Stephen Archer and Peter O'Mahony this weekend.
"On the back of a couple of fantastic performances this year with our non-international group if you like, we will looking for more of the same from them," he said.
With two weeks without a game on the horizon, the non-international players will be looking to sign off with a big performance, but the Ospreys are always awkward opponents.
Even though their team sheet doesn't have its usual stellar look to it, they still have the likes of Andrew Bishop, Tito Tibaldi and Joe Bearman to call on, and Tandy wants his side to compete.
"It's never an easy place to go to, it's going to be a tough match. They are coming into the game after some very impressive performances and have only lost twice so far this season," the Ospreys coach said.
"While they are looking strong, we are also going into the game off the back of our victory against the Dragons last week. We are still working towards the full performance, the result has given the squad confidence.
"We know what we have to do and I believe from the work put in this week that this group can deliver what we ask of them. We will go to Thomond Park knowing how strong we can be and hopefully we will do ourselves justice."
A bonus point might be the best they can hope for if Munster can get firing early and push on from there. The Reds are the stronger side on paper and, having gone top last weekend, they have an opportunity to consolidate their position tonight.
MUNSTER – F Jones; J Murphy, C Laulala, I Dineen, R O'Mahony; I Keatley, D Williams; D Kilcoyne, D Varley (capt), BJ Botha; Donncha O'Callaghan, D Foley; Dave O'Callaghan, S Dougall, CJ Stander. Reps: D Casey, J Cronin, J Ryan, B Holland, J Coughlan, C Sheridan, JJ Hanrahan, C Bohane.
OSPREYS – R Fussell; A Natoga, J Spratt (capt), A Bishop, B John; M Morgan, T Tibaldi; M Thomas, S Baldwin, J Rees; L Peets, J King; J Bearman, S Lewis, M Allen. Reps: M Dwyer, N Smith, D Suter, R Hughes, A Ellis, T Habberfield, S Davies, H Dirksen.
Ref – G Vivarini (Italy)
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