Munster to buck trend of history
HISTORY is against Munster when they run out at the Madejski Stadium to face London Irish this evening (5.45).
Since their first venture into European competition 15 years ago, Munster have travelled to England for their opening pool match six times and have returned home vanquished on five of those occasions -- the most recent being last year's loss in Northampton.
The solitary victory came against Leicester at Welford Road in 2006/07, the day of Donncha O'Callaghan's 50-yard dash and Ronan O'Gara's wonder penalty from inside his own half on the stroke of time.
The record books also demonstrate that a losing bonus point in these fixtures can be sufficient reward in terms of getting out of the pool -- early days and all that -- and the general consensus is that Munster keeping the Exiles to within seven points would represent a good day at the office.
While the Heineken Cup is universally acknowledged as Europe's premier club contest, the debate as to the respective merits of the English Premiership and the Magners League continues to rage. It may be a little clearer by tonight as the leaders of those competitions go head-to-head.
Both teams make changes, five personnel and two positional on the Munster side while Irish bring in three players who did not start in last weekend's thumping win over Leeds Carnegie.
It is not exactly a changing of the guard at Munster but it is interesting to note that only five of their starting 15 began the victorious 2008 final against Toulouse -- Denis Hurley, Doug Howlett, O'Gara, O'Callaghan and Denis Leamy.
Injury has played a significant role and Munster going into battle without seasoned European warriors such as Paul O'Connell, Jerry Flannery (who played 40 minutes for Shannon against Garryowen last night) and Tomas O'Leary will be a boost to the Exiles' ambitions.
On top of that, home coach Toby Booth may well have expected to face stalwarts such as Marcus Horan, John Hayes, David Wallace and Paul Warwick (all on the bench) and Alan Quinlan (not in the match-day 23) from the off.
However, Munster coach Tony McGahan has named a team that features three players -- Hurley, Keith Earls and James Coughlan -- making their first starts of the season.
It is a selection that will be reviewed as either inspired or misguided depending on how things pan out but it is clear that the Munster management team felt the need to mix things up after last weekend's defeat by Leinster.
The squad met in Mitchelstown on Monday for a clear-the-air session and, while that get-together may not have quite hit the 'Spartacus: Blood and Sand' levels of no-holds-barred engagement, reports indicate that there were few hiding places as the home truths were handed out.
Warwick and Quinlan miss out as a result but the men who have been called up have pedigree for contests of this nature.
Hurley, in spite of injury getting in the way, was excellent on the left wing last season to the point where he deserved to come into international reckoning. He fills that role again this evening, which sees the in-form Johne Murphy switch to full-back and those two could well swap around at different stages if the situation requires it.
Coughlan was inspirational in Dolphin's win over Shannon last weekend and, while the All-Ireland League would not be deemed adequate preparation for Heineken Cup rugby by any stretch, the No 8 is a player who produces consistent performances whatever level he operates at.
As well as bringing his natural footballing skills to bear, Coughlan will be the man Munster look to for taking up the 'dirty ball' when they need to reset and he has that 'Dean Richards' knack of being in the right place at the right time.
Then there is Earls. Throwing him into a match of this magnitude in his first game back from injury is something of a calculated risk for, although short on match-fitness, the Limerickman's quality brooks no argument and he has the capacity to give the back line that cutting edge they were unable to discover against Leinster's claustrophobic defence.
London Irish, with Dave Ellis calling their defensive shots, will be equally tough to break down but in Earls, Murphy and a razor-sharp Howlett, the visitors bring an attacking threat to the party to go with their directness from forward drives, O'Gara's boot and the charges of Sam Tuitupou.
London Irish will fancy their chances out wide also. In addition to a pair of giant South Seas centres and devastating pace in their back three, the Exiles have a concerted attacking policy and are the only English Premiership side to have completed more than 700 passes this season.
Ryan Lamb has been in good form at out-half but this is a player who can be got at. It may not quite be a case of Lamb to the slaughter but Munster have a tradition of rattling opposing No 10s and the former Gloucester player can be brittle if his confidence is knocked early on.
Munster will need their set-pieces to function. Their scrummaging has been encouraging, with Tony Buckley returning to build on a strong start to the season, but their lineout needs to be on the mark against the Exiles' vaunted combination of Bob Casey and Nick Kennedy.
In O'Connell's absence, Donnacha Ryan has been showing the benefits of a run of games in his best position and the pack as a unit needs to impose themselves on the opposition, led by their rejuvenated captain Leamy. McGahan has good options on the bench, with Wallace and Warwick especially capable of making a second-half impact.
History and logic point to a home victory but there are a few factors to consider before making that call. Munster are smarting after last weekend, which is always when they are at their most dangerous, and there is also the desire to honour the memory of Moss Keane, whose death cast a pall over the camp this week.
Reading may seem like an unlikely venue for epic battles but there is some precedent. The Battle of Reading in 871AD saw an invading army of Danes emerge victorious after a brutal battle with the local Saxons, led by King Ethelred and Alfred the Great, and there were no losing bonus point incentives back then.
History to repeat itself? It might just happen ... invaders by six.
LONDON IRISH -- D Armitage; T Ojo, E Seveali'i, S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau; R Lamb, P Hodgson; C Dermody (capt), J Buckland, F Rautenbach; N Kennedy, B Casey; K Roche, D Danaher, G Stowers. Reps: D Paice, M Lahiff, A Corbisiero, M Garvey, C Hala'ufia, J Joseph, D Bowden, D Allinson.
MUNSTER -- J Murphy; D Howlett, K Earls, S Tuitupou, D Hurley; R O'Gara, P Stringer; W du Preez, D Varley, T Buckley; D O'Callaghan, D Ryan; D Leamy (capt), N Ronan, J Coughlan. Reps: M Sherry, M Horan, J Hayes, M O'Driscoll, D Wallace, D Williams, P Warwick, S Deasy.
REF -- C Berdos (France)
London Irish v Munster, Sky Spts 1, 5.45