Resisting the blackout
Ospreys' bid to stir fan-power unlikely to perturb Munster
Published 18/12/2010 | 05:00
Seconds away, round two. You sense the under-soil heating at the Liberty Stadium may be superfluous, given the fiery rivalry that has developed between these sides -- in what is a virtual shoot-out, today's game is likely to have a blood-soaked denouement in more ways than one.
The bookmakers' slight favouritism for the home side seems to be based blindly on territorial grounds. Ospreys coach Scott Johnson suggests nothing can separate the teams.
"If the bookies were splitting this both parties would probably be even money," he says. "And probably the same market would have been set last week as well. It's good theatre."
It sure is -- with the Ospreys certainly mastering theatrics of the dubious kind, the histrionics deployed by Jonathan Thomas last weekend still arousing a deep-seated, seething resentment within Munster circles.
They're better when they're bitter, are Munster.
But even discarding any residual ill-feeling between these perennial sporting enemies, there seems to be no earthly reason to suggest anything other than a 32nd road success for Munster in their beloved Heineken Cup.
The Ospreys offered nothing in attack last weekend, with James Hook cowed and Mike Phillips content to carom off Munster back-rowers rather than fuelling his talented backs.
Defensively, Munster owned the affair and were only unpicked when they themselves seemed certain to score on a cleverly created overlap; had they been more clinical, the Welsh side would have lost the match points total 5-0, rendering them a beaten docket.
That they remain clinging on to a qualification ticket offers them some solace and, side-stepping cold logic, it is perhaps only through their own unpredictability that Ospreys can vaguely hope to resurrect their slim qualification hopes.
Munster's aims are similarly clear-cut; another defeat for them will leave them on the verge of elimination. As well as perceived bitterness, they like being pinned with their backs to the wall -- all the more so with the Ospreys entreating all their supporters to 'blackout' the stadium by mirroring their own black playing gear, as they defend an unbeaten home European record that stretches back to exactly five years ago to the day when Leicester beat them in Swansea.
That was the same day Gavin Henson became embroiled in a violent spat with Alex Moreno, an incident that prompted Ospreys forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys to glibly draw a parallel to Paul O'Connell's sending-off last weekend.
The Ospreys supporters like to ape soccer antics just as much as their players and coaches, so Munster's former Leicester winger Johne Murphy, who did not play here in 2005 and lost on two successive visits since, knows what to expect.
"The more intimidating the better," he declares defiantly. "I remember playing in Perpignan, Geordan Murphy getting hit by a rock and it's that kind of stuff that you remember. It was a weird situation and I'm sure it definitely won't happen this weekend! But the more intimidating the place, the better the kick you get from it -- as long as you're on the right side of the result."
Still, the roll call of victims in the 15 home games since that last-gasp Dan Hipkiss try in December 2005 includes some high-profile victims: Leicester twice, Stade Francais twice, Perpignan, Sale, Gloucester and Clermont Auvergne. And yet you feel that Munster's management of games passes better muster than the Ospreys'; even their micro-management of those "championship moments" has contributed so much to their incredible record in this competition.
Last week, for example, they still led at half-time despite a poor opening half, still turned the screw when numerically advantaged in the third quarter, before battening down the hatches for the final 10 minutes with 14 men.
It's as if they can navigate blindfolded by instinct. Munster only need to recall a similar trip into hostile territory last year, when they stunned Perpignan in their bear pit.
"It's the same every year, you don't really know in particular games or moments when those moments are, only when they're gone," says coach Tony McGahan, who also pinpointed a defining trip to Clermont two seasons ago under Declan Kidney.
"I remember back in 07/08 when we played Clermont away and Rua Tipoki held up the back-row over the line in the 58th or 59th minute. They score then and we don't get the bonus point, we don't go through and we don't get to win the Heineken Cup. So moments like that stand out, that one particular effort or mistake can certainly derail the season.
"You don't know when they're going to come, you've got to approach every one as if it's a championship action. So we need to make sure we've got that hunger and desire and I'm sure we will."
Predictably, McGahan has retained faith in the same playing cast for his side's fifth successive game -- Donnacha Ryan's inclusion for the suspended Paul O'Connell was an inevitability -- and it is the home side who have been prompted to shake up their approach.
Even though they only make one change, it is a significant one with also potentially wider long-term implications for Ireland -- not least in this World Cup year. Tommy Bowe's switch inside from the wing to partner James Hook is an admission from head coach Johnson, widely pilloried for his side's one-dimensional approach of late, that his side have been starved of creativity.
While the Ospreys will collectively bleat that is because Munster are spoiling the ball -- by foul or fair means -- that is academic at this stage because they will need five-pointers to win, presuming Ronan O'Gara's accuracy from the tee returns this week.
Hence Munster's street smarts will be all the more important. You sense they have the big plays -- and the big players -- to counter whatever threat Ospreys, still floundering without Lee Byrne and Shane Williams, may fling at them.
The Ospreys may just get a 'blackout' after all. And be delivered a knock-out blow in round four.
Verdict: Munster to prevail by any means necessary
Ospreys v Munster,
Live, Sky Sports 1, 3.30
Ospreys -- B Davies; N Walker, T Bowe, J Hook, R Fussell; D Biggar, M Phillips; P James, R Hibbard, A Jones, R Jones, A Jones (capt), J Collins, M Holah, J Thomas. Reps: M Davies, D Jones, C Mitchell, I Gough, J Tipuric, J Nutbrown, S Parker, A Bishop.
Munster -- P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, S Tuitupou, J Murphy; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; W du Preez, D Varley, T Buckley, D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll, J Coughlan, D Wallace, D Leamy (capt). Reps: M Sherry, D Hurley, J Hayes, D Ryan, A Quinlan, P Stringer, L Mafi, D Hurley.
Ref -- R Poite (France).