McGahan's pack shuffle key in high-stakes clash
It's moving time in the club rugby season and the nerves are twitching. These sides meet for the third time in Heineken Cup combat. One-all and you guess it will come down to who blinks first.
All hands are on deck. In Limerick this week, the Munster camp attempted their best dead-panning to hide deep concern at Paul O'Connell's groin strain.
But the captain will start. It was inconceivable that he could not. Then an experienced World Cup winner, Jean De Villiers, lets slip to the media that Keith Earls would also beat an injury rap.
And, what's more, he will abandon his normal wing posting to replace Lifeimi Mafi, the management's concerns about Mafi's defensive lapse in the first act of this fixture and his recently stilted attacking displays clearly not allayed.
"At this time in the season, we're not getting that attacking edge," conceded Tony McGahan on Tuesday. Little surprise, then, that Earls, their most potent strike-runner, starts where he can do most damage.
Over in sleepy Northampton, their combative hooker, Dylan Hartley, lets the cat out of the bag a full two days before the team announcement -- Stephen Myler will start ahead of Shane Geraghty.
Flinty trumps flaky because, Hartley coolly explained, the former controls the game better. But then, as Jerry Flannery conceded this week, it's all about the pack, stupid. The pack that wins will provide the winners. Munster's is creaking and unsure; hence another back-row re-shuffle.
Where Niall Ronan was once the man in form, now he is jettisoned. James Coughlan moves to the base. The 29-year-old Ireland International Sevens player's only five previous appearances in the competition have come off the bench, but tomorrow he wins his 40th Munster cap having debuted in 2006 against Cardiff Blues at The Arms Park.
David Wallace, occasionally spouting black petrol of late, moves again to the openside, with Alan Quinlan destined to face off with Neil Best in a scrap which would make bare-knuckle boxing seem like a balletic pursuit.
Munster's set-piece will be bolstered by Flannery's return (he missed the chess-like 12-9 second act); Damian Varley's presence on the bench hints at a loss of patience in the errant Denis Fogarty.
Northampton's monster props will seek to do damage at scrum time -- Euan Murray will be buoyed by his recent number on Marcus Horan in 'A' international combat -- but then Munster retain the memory of their defiant scrum, with Dougie Howlett packing on the blindside last January.
Soane Tonga'uiha's contract dispute with Saracens may not impact on his battle with the under-fire John Hayes. "It doesn't seem to have bothered him," says his forwards coach, Dorian West. "Like most props, all he thinks about is scrummaging and his next meal.
"We need to have an all-round game, but the scrum is always an area we look to dominate the opposition in," he continues, knowing that Geraghty can be sprung to dance late in the piece. "We want to be on top in the scrum because that translates to the rest of your game."
The only remaining English side left in this competition have repeated the mantra this week that chances such as these should be mercilessly seized. "You've got to take every opportunity you get, and you might only get one or two," says former All Black Bruce Reihana.
Northampton have already snaffled the first of a potential trophy treble; they have won 19 of their last 21 outings, five of them by single-figure margins and yet their biggest victory -- 16 points -- was a thumping dismissal of current Premiership leaders Leicester.
The latter memorably inflicted Munster's only Heineken Cup defeat in Thomond Park in 42 attempts; that was a dead rubber. This is knock-out time and Munster's ability to thrive in this arena is a world away from the naivety of a decade ago when these sides met in the final, the English then holding sway.
On that occasion, Ronan O'Gara missed a late Twickenham penalty which would have accelerated Munster's rise to Heineken Cup royalty -- what a prolonged odyssey would have been denied to us if he had kicked it! -- and his smooth reintegration into Munster red following the Six nations will be a key factor.
"Both pool games we played against them were very, very hard-fought and very, very physical," continues Reihana. "We've got to be very disciplined, especially inside our own half because Ronan O'Gara can kick them from anywhere."
Having said that, Munster won't win with the 15 penalties conceded against Leinster last weekend, even if their favourite referee is in charge, and their ability to withstand physical pressure, while in turn applying their own stranglehold, will be pivotal to this encounter.
Northampton's back three look dangerous, but only if allowed the latitude by go-forward momentum; witness how Eoin Reddan had the freedom of the park against Tomas O'Leary last week.
As in January's fixture, expect O'Gara to pummel Ben Foden early on; Roger Wilson dropped the first last time out, Foden caught the second, but conceded a penalty. Munster's kick-chasers will need to be manically oppressive.
Worryingly, Leinster did to Munster last week what normally happened in reverse. Flannery conceded this week that Munster must revert to something approaching type, more direct running and better territorial nous.
Finding narrower targets with their back-line and getting the forwards to build from there is key. "What Leinster did to us is that they put the pressure on us to play," agrees Flannery.
"Munster have generally played by reversing the pressure on to other teams, and I suppose it's a fair enough point... we'll be looking to try and take a leaf out of Leinster's book and maybe play ball down in their half."
Both camps claim they are improving, but that there is scope for more to come. Something has got to give and, while we spoke last week of Munster needing it more, this week is not just about needing. Munster must win, otherwise coaching tenures will come under strain and key players will carry large question marks over their future careers in red.
A Munster season doesn't revolve around Heineken Cup quarter-finals; it builds on them. Defeat cannot be countenanced. Reputations are on the line.
Munster -- P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, J de Villiers, I Dowling; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt); A Quinlan, D Wallace, J Coughlan. Replacements: D Varley, J Brugnaut, T Buckley, M O'Driscoll, N Williams, N Ronan, P Stringer, L Mafi.
Northampton -- B Foden, C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, B Reihana, S Myler, L Dickson, S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt), E Murray, C Lawes, J Kruger, P Dowson, N Best, R Wilson. Replacements: B Sharman, R Dreyer, B Mujati, I Fernandez Lobbe, M Easter, A Dickens, S Geraghty, J Ansbro.
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