Ryan back to bolster Munster's title push
DONNACHA Ryan's return from what his head coach Anthony Foley once described as a "weird" toe injury has boosted Munster's chances of taking a stranglehold in the race for a Pro12 home semi-final slot.
As they prepare to renew their rivalry with Ospreys, the lock's return from the bench after an 11-month absence is a boon as they seek to consolidate their league leadership ahead of the chasing pack.
"We have struggled against them over the years," admits captain Denis Hurley.
"They will have some players back from the Six Nations too because of the break, so it is going to be tough opposition again this weekend. But I think we can take a lot of positives out of the last couple of weeks.
"We are really going to get tested and we will need to put in an aggressive performance. That will give us the foundation of getting into the game early on and hopefully with 10-15 minutes left we will be still in the game and see where we go from there."
After seeing off another title rival, Glasgow last week, coach Foley has made minimal changes to his side for the Liberty Stadium clash.
Dave Kilcoyne comes into the starting front-row at loosehead alongside Eusebio Guinazu and BJ Botha, while Donncha O'Callaghan and Billy Holland form the second-row partnership for the fourth successive game.
Dave O'Callaghan return at blindside alongside Sean Dougall and CJ Stander while Felix Jones, Ireland's consistent replacement in the Six Nations, comes in on the right wing opposite Ronan O'Mahony, with JJ Hanrahan at full-back.
Aside from Ryan's comeback, the return to top form of another long-term injury victim, Keith Earls, has also lifted the squad, as evidenced by his audacious chip and gather in scoring against Glasgow last weekend.
"Keith has been an asset since the first day he walked into Munster," says his midfield partner Hurley.
"From the outset you could see the skill-set he had, but he has honed them over the years too. He has had a long lay-off and when he comes back he is so keen to get involved as quickly as he can.
"His pace is phenomenal too, but he is also a leader on the field. There is great communication from him too. He will always tell you when he is in space and that he wants the ball. He has done it over and over again and that is the kind of player he is."
Ospreys have slipped off in their quest for a play-off spot and with a host of their internationals also missing, they will hope that home advantage can swing this one.
They have only won one of five in contrast to Munster's four successive wins but are targeting a first double against the Irish side since 2012, and they have won eight of 11 ties against them here.
"This is a huge game for us having dropped out of the play-off spots last week," said head coach Steve Tandy.
"Munster are at the top of the table now and are a quality outfit, so we know that we are going to have to be at our best if we are going to get the performance level needed to ensure we stay in touch after this weekend.
"At the risk of repeating myself and stating the obvious, this is an absolutely crucial period as it always is, a month that can shape how the table looks come the end of the season.
"We've had some disappointments but week on week there have been clear improvements, as we saw against Leinster."
Not enough to win today, though.
Ospreys - D Evans; T Grabham, J Spratt, J Matavesi, H Dirksen; S Davies, T Habberfield; R Bevington, S Otten, A Jarvis, L Peers, T Ardron, J King, J Tipuric capt, D Baker. Reps: M Dwyer, N Smith, D Arhip, R Thornton, O Cracknell, M Allen, M Roberts, B John.
Munster - JJ Hanrahan; F Jones, K Earls, D Hurley capt, R O'Mahony; I Keatley, D Williams; D Kilcoyne, E Guinazu, BJ Botha, D O'Callaghan, B Holland, D O'Callaghan, S Dougall, CJ Stander. Reps: K O'Byrne, J Ryan, S Archer, D Ryan, J O'Donoghue, N Cronin, A Smith, A Conway.
Ref - Marius Mitrea (FIR)
Ospreys v Munster,
Live, Sky Sports 1, 2.40