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Thursday 17 April 2014

O'Gara under the spotlight

IT is not overstating matters to suggest that Declan Kidney will have a keener interest in the goings on in south-west Wales tonight that might normally have been the case.

The Ireland head coach's interest will always be piqued when Munster are playing. It's only natural for a man who is of Munster, who lives in Munster and who – most importantly – coached Munster to their two most notable successes.

Ronan O'Gara starts for Munster tonight. The 35-year-old's last start in any competition was back on January 13, when Munster played Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup. He needs game time, which is why he has been released by Ireland for this weekend's game.

Jonathan Sexton's injury has forced Kidney's hand and O'Gara will start against Scotland in Murrayfield tomorrow week.

Paddy Jackson will, presumably, be on the bench – although if Ian Madigan impresses for Leinster this evening he could force his way into the reckoning – but for a game of this importance Kidney will turn to the 127-times capped O'Gara, which explains his interest in the game at Parc y Scarlets.

None of the three alternatives to O'Gara – Jackson, Madigan and Ian Keatley – have shown they have the big-game temperament needed for international rugby. Of course, the Catch 22 is that you can only prove you have what it takes by being afforded the opportunity.

It is to Ireland's advantage that Scarlets are providing the opposition tonight because the way they have adapted their game plan ensures that the opposition out-half is heavily involved in proceedings.

Scarlets started the season playing a lot of rugby, keeping the ball in hand and throwing out passes in an attempt to go around the opposition defences.

Their poor return in the Heineken Cup, though, has resulted in a subtle shift in their approach.

Scraps

They now are content to kick the ball back to the opposition and force them to make the plays and then pick up on any mistakes made. Scarlets will concede possession to Munster and live off the scraps from their table.

As a consequence the opposition out-half – in this case O'Gara – must ensure he is accurate in everything he does, not least when putting boot to ball.

Scarlets also have a very strong forward game, and while that ensures they will be competitive in the front five, it also means they will threaten the 10-12 channel constantly and try to hound the out-half into making hurried decisions.

Similarly, Donncha O'Callaghan starts in the second-row for Munster tonight. With Mike McCarthy ruled out of the Scotland game, O'Callaghan will also come into the Ireland team for a rare start next weekend in Murrayfield.

There is a dearth of international-standard locks coming through in the provinces, but such has been O'Callaghan's form this season that he will be wholly deserving of his start against Scotland.

But given the lack of credible back-up to him, his well-being tonight will also be a cause of some concern for Kidney.

From a travelling perspective, it is believed that the Munster squad will be downsized slightly next season and it could well be the case that some players – starters and replacements – could be playing for their futures over the next few weeks.

Aside from the subplots at work, though, there are also some hugely important Pro12 points on offer tonight.

Scarlets are one point and a place above Munster in the table, which belies their European form, and they also welcome back some of their international contingent tonight in Liam Williams and Josh Turnbull.

The Scarlets go into the contest having won their last two games at home – against Leicester in the LV Cup and Connacht last weekend in the Pro12, and coach Simon Easterby has kept faith in the young half-back partnership of Owen Williams at outside-half and Aled Davies at No 9.

Munster have won five of their last six games in all competitions. The Scarlets beat Munster 13-6 at Musgrave Park in round nine this season, and have the chance to complete their first double over them since 2003-04.

Verdict: Scarlets

SCARLETS – G Owen; L Williams, G Maule, A Warren, A Fenby; O Williams, A Davies; P John, E Phillips, J Adriaanse; G Earle, J Synman, R McCusker, J Turnbull, K Murphy. Replacements: K Myhill, R Jones, S Lee, J Ball, J Edwards, G Davies, A Thomas, N Reynolds.

MUNSTER – I Keatley; J Murphy, I Dineen, JJ Hanrahan, D Hurley; R O'Gara, D Williams; W du Preez, M Sherry, BJ Botha; D O'Callaghan, I Nagle; CJ Stander, T O'Connell, P Butler. Replacements: S Henry, J Ryan, S Archer, B Holland, S Dougall, C Sheridan, D Barnes, C Laulala.

REF – D Phillips (IRFU)

Scarlets v Munster,

Live, RTE2/S4C, 6.30

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