Sunday 18 March 2018

Reds' strength in depth should prove difference

Hugh Farrelly

IT'S been a tough week for Munster, with Felix Jones, Ian Dowling and Denis Fogarty all on the long-term injury list after last weekend's victory over the Ospreys.

However, the strength in depth that has helped propel Munster to the summit of the table in the face of injury and Ireland player management obstacles has come to the fore as Tony McGahan named a powerful side for tonight's assignment against Glasgow at Firhill (7.30).

Jones will be badly missed, but by switching Paul Warwick to full-back and starting Ronan O'Gara at out-half, McGahan is able to accommodate his two playmakers in the backline, while Lifeimi Mafi's return to fitness permits Johne Murphy's transfer to the left wing in place of Dowling.

Damien Varley starts at hooker and, with Fogarty unavailable until after Christmas and Jerry Flannery not yet ready for a return to action, academy hooker Sean Henry comes onto the bench.

One of the most eye-catching aspects of Munster's unbeaten start to the season has been the strong performance of their scrum. It was both intelligent and pragmatic for Munster to place an emphasis on the set-piece and the presence of All Blacks guru Mike Kron in the camp this week, where he was working with scrum coach Paul McCarthy, can only aid the process.

Tony Buckley has been the most obvious example of the raised levels and he starts at tight-head tonight, where he faces a stern test from Jon Welsh, who caused him trouble last season.

Marcus Horan is on the loose-head side, with Donncha O'Callaghan and Donnacha Ryan continuing their partnership in the second row. David Wallace makes his first start of the season in the back row, slotting in at blind-side, with Niall Ronan retained at open-side and Denis Leamy returning from injury to captain the side from No 8.

It is an experienced selection with a formidable pack and plenty of southern hemisphere-honed attacking threat in the backline.

Doug Howlett has been in great form in the opening three matches and his fellow All Black Sam Tuitupou has been a muscular success in the midfield.

Munster have only one victory from their last five visits to Glasgow but go into this encounter with momentum while the Warriors are still reeling from the disappointment of last weekend's home defeat to Connacht, a match they would have marked in the 'W' column when running through the fixtures at the start of the season.

It leaves them vulnerable, although in their captain John Barclay, second-row Richie Gray, Welsh and centre Graeme Morrison, they have enough ability to cause Munster problems. They are short on nous compared to their visitors -- the average age of the pack is just 23 -- and much will depend on Duncan Weir's performance at out-half, where coach Sean Lineen has opted to rest Ruaridh Jackson.

Munster look to have the greater strength on the bench, too, where Wian Du Preez, Mick O'Driscoll, James Coughlan, Peter Stringer and Denis Hurley are available for introduction and, after brushing off the early season cobwebs last weekend, this looks like a match destined for O'Gara domination.

Firhill is a tough venue at the best of times, but with the winning habit becoming more entrenched with each outing, this Munster side will have no fears taking the pitch tonight.

They will want to iron out the line-out problems that surfaced last weekend and create more line breaks than the Ospreys' impressive defence permitted and discipline will be another priority in a season that has already been dominated by inconsistent refereeing.

All in all, Munster simply look too strong and should chalk up their fourth straight victory to send them into the following week's assignment against Leinster with a sense of surety.

Verdict: Munster

MUNSTER -- P Warwick; D Howlett, L Mafi, S Tuitupou, J Murphy; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; M Horan, D Varley, T Buckley; D O'Callaghan, D Ryan; D Wallace, N Ronan, D Leamy (capt). Reps: S Henry, W du Preez, Darragh Hurley, M O'Driscoll, J Coughlan, P Stringer, S Deasy, Denis Hurley.

GLASGOW -- B Stortoni; DTH van der Merwe, M Evans, G Morrison, F Aramburu; D Weir, C Gregor; J Welsh, F Thomson, M Low; T Ryder, R Gray; R Harley, J Barclay (capt), R Vernon. Reps (from): D Hall, E Kalman, K Tkachuk, A Muldowney, R Wilson, C Forrester, H Pyrgos, R Jackson, R Dewey, P Murchie.

REF -- C Damasco (Italy).

Irish Independent

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