Young guns to stop Saints breaching Thomond fortress
THERE was a time when teams travelled to Limerick for Heineken Cup assignments against Munster resigned to the prospect of defeat.
Reminiscent of Ireland internationals from the 1990s who spoke about being "beaten before we got on the plane" for trips to Paris, visitors to Thomond Park may have talked optimistically beforehand but their body language when they hit the pitch told a different story.
It is the reason why Munster's record here (one Heineken Cup defeat to Leicester when qualification was already secured) is so daunting.
However, with Munster in a self-acknowledged period of transition, the mantle of impregnability is slipping. And, with last year's European failures and the recession challenging the customary hot-house Thomond Park atmosphere, Northampton show up for this evening's showdown (6.0) with genuine confidence.
"It's something to get really excited about," says Saints coach Jim Mallinder. "Munster deserved to win those two games there (two seasons ago) and we deserved to win the game at Franklin's Gardens. We've strengthened our squad and we're a little bit more experienced.
"It's been good for us we've had a couple of games to get the (international) players back into our way of thinking, and they've been improving as the weeks have progressed.
"Our training sessions this week have been the best quality we've had."
Last weekend's excellent win away to Wasps has bolstered Northampton belief, and Mallinder's selection is packed with familiar names and game-winning potential.
Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Vasily Artemyev make up one of the swiftest back threes in the competition, James Downey will truck it up in midfield, and their established front-row of Soane Tonga'uiha, captain Dylan Hartley and Brian Mujati are on a mission to cow their opponents at source in the scrum.
Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood will be the primary source of line-out possession, while Lee Dickson will conduct operations from scrum-half.
It is a formidable line-up and Northampton will look at the Munster team-sheet shorn of some their most established warriors and detect an air of vulnerability.
Alan Quinlan is retired, David Wallace and Keith Earls are injured, while Donncha O'Callaghan, Denis Leamy and Tomas O'Leary all start on the bench.
However, while the likes of James Coughlan, Peter O'Mahony, Donnacha Ryan, Danny Barnes and Conor Murray may be unfamiliar to Mallinder and his players, Northampton would be unwise to discount the threats they bring to the party.
Although circumstance has forced his hand to a degree, this is a progressive selection by coach Tony McGahan.
O'Mahony and Coughlan made a big difference coming off the bench and into the Munster back-row in the defeat by Leinster last weekend, while Ryan is back in his natural position of second-row and probably a bit fresher than O'Callaghan after less World Cup exposure.
Denis Hurley on the left wing for Earls also looks a sensible call -- he was unlucky not to earn an international call-up in this position a couple of seasons ago and brings aerial ability, a powerful physical presence and a brief to get in Northampton faces.
Like Murray at scrum-half, Barnes has a capacity to find his feet on each step up the ladder and Munster's issues in attack could be much improved if Lifeimi Mafi (who looked sharp against Leinster) can look for off-loads rather than contact when Barnes trails his runs.
However, this is a contest which will be defined by the forwards' confrontation.
While his Springbok colleague Jean de Villiers was a hit-and-miss signing, BJ Botha looks the best bit of business Munster have done for a while.
It allows them to enter the scrum showdown with a degree of confidence which can only help psychologically -- and practically, as a platform for an extremely mobile back-row.
From an Ireland point of view, it would have been good to see O'Mahony at openside but, wherever he plays, the 22-year-old can be depended upon to bring spark and aggression to Munster's play, something McGahan admitted they lacked at the breakdown last week.
The excellent defence against Leinster must be replicated this week, for Northampton will test Munster in a number of areas and the home side should make it their mission to get after Saints fly-half Ryan Lamb.
The ex-Gloucester playmaker is a talented footballer but is not the biggest and a couple of heavy sackings might be productive for Munster in a game where replacement Steve Myler looked to be a more pragmatic starter at out-half.
Either way, Northampton arrive with the scent of victory in their nostrils.
"We are going into the game in good spirits," said Mallinder. "We want that win. Winning your home games is crucial in the Heineken Cup and Munster will be under pressure."
Munster will indeed be under pressure, but that does not mean they will buckle.
MUNSTER -- J Murphy; D Howlett, D Barnes, L Mafi, D Hurley; R O'Gara, C Murray; W du Preez, D Varley, BJ Botha; D Ryan, P O'Connell (capt); P O'Mahony, N Ronan, J Coughlan. Reps: D Fogarty, J Ryan, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, D Leamy, T O'Leary, I Keatley, W Chambers.
NORTHAMPTON -- B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, V Artemyev; R Lamb, L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt), B Mujati; C Lawes, M Sorenson; C Clark, T Wood, R Wilson. Reps: M Haywood, A Waller, P Doran-Jones, S Manoa, P Dowson, M Roberts, S Myler, G Pisi.
REF -- N Owens (Wales)
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