Friday 19 January 2018

Jones confident of smash-and-grab raid on Thomond

David Kelly

David Kelly

Even without injured trio of Paul O'Connell, Keith Earls and Doug Howlett, Munster will be buoyed by last week's diversion into the west as they aim to secure a semi-final spot -- and boost confidence ahead of their Heineken Cup date with Biarritz -- when they entertain the Ospreys at Thomond Park this evening.

Merely a cigarette paper -- a points difference of eight in Munster's favour -- separates these sides and the Welsh visitors need a win as they strive to secure a lucrative home semi-final; a Munster win would virtually guarantee them a home semi-final and, in the process, render an all-Irish final even more likely.

Try scorer from the victory against Connacht at the Sportsground, Scott Deasy, retains his place in the team, but on the wing rather than full-back. Last Sunday's debutant Simon Zebo is also retained in the match-day 22, named on the bench alongside Denis Hurley who makes a welcome return from injury, but Tony Buckley (knee injury) is ruled out.

As Jerry Flannery noted of that Munster win in Connacht: "It was good to see some of the younger lads come in, do well and get a win. We've that squad mentality where we're trying to get consistency over a sequence of results.

"For those of us who weren't going to be involved against Connacht, it was a case of handing the reins over to the lads who were stepping in. I was looking forward to seeing them go out there and take their chance. A lot of them haven't had a lot of game time this year and they're very, very hungry."

The perennial Welsh under-achievers, Ospreys, will once more attempt to swoop to conquer a year on from their Heineken Cup embarrassment at the same venue.

After naming a full-strength squad for this one, it is clear the region are targeting a home semi-final in the Magners League and they aim to leave nothing behind them in their attempt to do so -- apart from maybe a few titbits on how to beat Biarritz for the home side's benefit.

Ahead of the last leg of an exhaustive Irish tour, immediately after that thrilling, but agonising Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat to the Basque outfit in San Sebastian, the Welsh are still managing to talk a good game.

Their captain Ryan Jones, clearly shifting last year's quarter-final Cup defeat in Limerick to a deep repository within his brain, claims that his side are capable of beating anyone. That they are also capable of losing to anyone, remains a problem for one of European rugby's most over-hyped and over-paid teams.

"We're confident we can beat anyone on the day," claims the unabashed Jones. "The boys have shown fantastic character and maturity in the last two games. We went away to Ireland for a week after the disappointment of losing to Biarritz in Europe and we picked up six points from two very tough away fixtures.

"All in all, it was a very positive trip and experience for us. It was three games in seven days and that's tough at this level. The pitches have been dry, the games have been fast, there's been a lot of phases, it's been physical and an emotional roller coaster that we've been on."

His point about 'character' is well-made and they are responding well to a dreadful schedule and the ongoing hangover from coughing up potential victory against Biarritz.

The Welsh region have made six changes to the team that lost at Leinster last Friday, with Jones, scrum-half Mike Phillips, and Tommy Bowe among those returning to a starting line-up where they certainly have the edge in the back three.

They have won two of their last three league games, but the Welsh region have not won in Munster since the first Celtic League season in 2004 and no Welsh team has won at Thomond Park since Dragons did so in March 2004.

Scott Johnson's men have only won once away from home in 2010 while two-time Heineken Cup champions Munster have won four of their last five games in all competitions.


"We are at the make-or-break stage of the season now," says their coach Sean Holley. "I think the introduction of the play-off system has clearly been a good thing for the competition. Along with the changes to Heineken Cup qualification, it's certainly generated a lot more excitement at the business end, and just about everybody is going into the last two weekend's of the regular season with something on the line.

"It's always difficult going out to Munster, who once again this season have shown what a quality outfit they are. They don't lose too many at Thomond Park, so we realise that it's going to be a difficult evening."

Hopefully, the weather won't demean what could be a cracker, which Munster, presuming they retain their focus despite next week's challenge, will seek to edge by keeping it tight.

"It's a lot more difficult to get up to your best and pull off a big performance in the Heineken Cup if you've been losing games in the Magners League," warns Flannery.

Verdict: Munster.

Munster -- P Warwick; T Gleeson, L Mafi, J de Villiers, S Deasy; R O'Gara (capt), T O'Leary; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes; D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll; A Quinlan, D Wallace, J Coughlan. Reps: D Varley, J Brugnaut, B Holland, N Ronan, P Stringer, D Hurley, S Zebo.

Ospreys -- L Byrne; T Bowe, A Bishop, J Hook, S Williams; D Biggar, M Phillips; P James, H Bennett, A Jones; I Gough, J Thomas; J Collins, M Holah, R Jones (capt). Reps: E Shervington, R Bevington, A Wyn Jones, F Tiatia, J Nutbrown, S Parker, N Walker

Ref -- Mr Neil Paterson (Scotland)

Munster v Ospreys,

Live , Setanta Ireland, 6.30

Irish Independent

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