Tuesday 24 April 2018

Reds set to clip Ospreys' wings as eyes turn towards Europe

New Munster coach Johann van Graan steps up Leicester prep as players aim to take league form into crucial European double-header

Ian Keatley of Munster. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ian Keatley of Munster. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

If November's Guinness Pro14 strolls allowed one South African to languidly hand over the coaching baton to another, December will see how firmly Johan van Graan can grasp it.

Three successive bonus-point wins should be completed against the hapless Ospreys this evening but one can imagine that much of Van Graan's work this week will have been spent poring over Leicester Tigers.

Munster are expected to reach the final four of this competition but they aspire to return to that stage in Europe, as they did last season; emerging ahead of Leicester during the next fortnight will be vital to that aim.

How beneficial a series of underwhelming competitive contests might harden them for Europe is debatable; particularly as a deepening injury crisis compounds a state of flux hardly helped by the perennial contract-renewal shenanigans.

Midfield is a case in point, with three men down already and much riding on the prospect of Sam Arnold freighting the promising form of relatively mundane league fare into the white heat of European combat.

The initial signs are encouraging. Jack O'Donoghue and Robin Copeland will also be charged with ensuring that recent developments in their form have not been fleeting but at least CJ Stander and Peter O'Mahony will return next week alongside the beastly Chris Cloete.

The returns of Ian Keatley (right) and John Ryan from Irish duty represent the only two changes from last week's winning Italian combination; Van Graan will also be questing a massive improvement in discipline and concentration.

"Our discipline let us down last week," confirmed another rising star Alex Wootton, "as it did away to Glasgow.

"That is a big thing we have focused on this week and leading into the Leicester games.

"Ospreys are sitting bottom of our conference, they are obviously hurting, but they are going to come here hurting and we will be expecting a backlash. We will try and bring that physicality to match theirs."

Ospreys, once a bête noir of this Munster side, are in free-fall, a stark reminder of the dangers when a national and regional policy are not in alignment.

That is more than apt this afternoon; the Welsh union's need to keep the cash rolling in sees them playing an international game in Cardiff which will utterly undermine their regional sides' European preparations.

Joe Schmidt has hinted Ireland may do something similar in 12 months' time. Watch this space.

Today, Ospreys are without captain Alun Wyn Jones, Nicky Smith, Rhodri Jones, Adam Beard, Sam Cross, Dan Lydiate, Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar, and Owen Watkin.

Given how their fledglings tanked against a weakened Glasgow last weekend, one fears for them today.

Head coach Steve Tandy said he expected to face difficult questions after the loss against Glasgow and, with the Welsh region having won only twice in nine Pro14 matches this season, he expects an improvement from his side.

"Clearly we have to see a reaction after the huge disappointment of Sunday," he said.

"We can't dwell on it, we have to learn from it and look forward. It's a cliché maybe, but it's the reality of where we are this weekend with a short turnaround, the travel and player availability.

"We certainly won't be sitting in a corner feeling sorry for ourselves. We know we are in a fight and will stick together to do the Ospreys badge justice."

Munster Rugby have won their last two matches in the Guinness PRO14, both with a try bonus point, at home to Dragons and away to Zebre.

Munster's home record is impressive in the league, only losing once in the last 14 months, to Scarlets earlier this year in Limerick, while their last defeat on their occasional visits to Cork was in September of last year.

Ospreys have won just once in the last eight rounds and they haven't won away from home in the championship since a trip to Edinburgh in March and they have only managed one win in the last seven against today's opponents.

Verdict: Munster

Munster - S Zebo; D Sweetnam, S Arnold, R Scannell, A Wootton; I Keatley, J Hart; L O'Connor, R Marshall, J Ryan; J Kleyn, B Holland (capt); J O'Donoghue, C Cloete, R Copeland.

Reps: K O'Byrne, B Scott, S Archer, D O'Shea, S O'Connor, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, C Nash.

Ospreys - D Evans; H Dirksen, K Fonotia, J Hook, J Hassler, S Davies, T Habberfield; G Thomas, S Parry, D Arhip; L Ashley, B Davies (capt); O Cracknell, W Jones, J King. Reps: S Baldwin, R Jenkins, M Fia, R McCusker, G Mercer, R Morgan-Williams, L Price, J Thomas.

REF - B Whitehouse (Wales).

Munster v Ospreys, Irish Independent Park, 5.30, Sky Sports Action

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