Warriors test no laughing matter for Foley's troops
MUNSTER return to the venue of last season's semi-final disappointment but vengeance will be the last thing on their mind. Today is about consolidation.
Top of the table after nine games, this is a chance for Anthony Foley's men to seize control of the Guinness Pro12 ahead of their meetings with Leinster and Connacht.
They lead third placed Glasgow Warriors by just a point and with Ospreys and Ulster both level with the Scots and facing each other this evening, this is a sort of moving day for the league.
While they lost the play-off game at Scotstoun, Munster did manage an impressive regular-season victory at the Glasgow venue last season.
With Peter O'Mahony outstanding, they kicked off a winning run that helped take them to the Heineken Cup semi-finals in the Scottish city and will be hoping for another such result this afternoon.
Both teams are coming off the back of bruising back-to-back defeats to French heavyweights in Europe, with Munster having fallen to Clermont and Glasgow coming up short against Toulouse.
Whereas the Reds have the consolation of fighting back for a late bonus point in their second game, Gregor Townsend's team got their tactics all wrong at home to the four-time European champions and paid the price in an ugly game.
So, the wind has been taken out of the early pace-setters' tails recently, although they have yet to lose at home in the Pro12 this season.
Although Leinster chose to rest some players for last night's game against Connacht, the coach is risking losing some of his big-hitters for the derby, with Joe Schmidt holding a national camp at Carton House early next week.
Munster always play better when that quartet are in the team and the selection of JJ Hanrahan at out-half is another interesting move by Foley considering the Kerryman's outing at centre last weekend.
That means a return for Denis Hurley who partners South African Pat Howard in the centre, while Andrew Conway - who is attracting overseas interest as his contract negotiations with Munster drag on - and Johne Murphy make up the back three. Up against them, Glasgow are without Stuart Hogg as Peter Murchie comes in at full-back, while Townsend unleashes his Fijians in tandem from the start as livewire scrum-half Niko Matawalu and off-loading second-row Leone Nakarawa look to keep Munster guessing.
However, the key battleground could be the scrum as Foley names an all-homegrown combination up front with Stephen Archer and Kevin O'Byrne joining John Ryan in the front row.
Up against them are the experienced trio of Gordon Reid, Fraser Brown and Euan Murray, and Townsend will surely have identified the set-piece as an area of attack.
If the scrum struggles, then Munster must make hay at the breakdown where Sean Dougall returns in place of Tommy O'Donnell. Robin Copeland will hope to provide the kind of go-forward ball that was his stock in trade last season in a direct confrontation with Glasgow captain Josh Strauss, while O'Mahony's battle with Rob Harley will be tasty.
If Munster can dominate the collisions, then they have the half-back combination to mix up the game. Murray's clever decision making and Hanrahan's ability to break when it's on are a potent mix.
On the bench, they have the reassuring presence of BJ Botha and Eusebio Guinazo to come in if the scrum struggles, while Ian Keatley and Felix Jones are calming influences, with Keatley's introduction offering the potential for Hanrahan to move into the centre if necessary.
"They have also changed the way they play," Townsend said this week. "Gone is the wide-wide pod system that Rob Penney had brought over - now they have returned to their traditional methods of hitting the gain line hard, getting immediate support to the ball carrier and looking for physicality in the contact area.
"This has brought them rewards. It was interesting to watch them perform against Clermont over the past two weekends and how much they adapted their game plan to pressurise their opposition.
"As a result, our preparation for Saturday's game has involved making sure we are ready for whichever Munster side takes to the field.
"The one thing we do know is Munster will be very strong in the set-piece, both at the scrum and in the line-out, while Paul O'Connell seems to be playing as well as ever."
These sides know each other well and will have spent the week focusing on perceived weaknesses.
The key for Munster would appear to be the scrum. If they can hold up their end of the bargain, then they have the back row and backline to come out on top. But Glasgow have a growing reputation and all the incentive to better them up front, while they have plenty of weapons out wide themselves. A win would give Munster breathing space, but a losing bonus wouldn't be a bad day's work.
Glasgow Warriors v Munster, Scotstoun, Live Sky Sports, 2.40
GLASGOW WARRIORS - P Murchie; S Lamont, R Vernon, P Horne, DTH van der Merwe; F Russell, N Matawalu; G Reid, F Brown, E Murray; L Nakarawa, J Gray; R Harley, T Holmes, J Strauss (capt). Reps: D Hall, A Allan, J Welsh, T Swinson, R Wilson, H Pyrgos, J Downey, T Seymour.
MUNSTER - J Murphy; A Conway, P Howard, D Hurley, S Zebo; JJ Hanrahan, C Murray; J Ryan, K O'Byrne, S Archer; B Holland, P O'Connell; P O'Mahony (capt), S Dougall, R Copeland. Reps: N Scannell, E Guinazu, BJ Botha, Donncha O'Callaghan, Dave O'Callaghan, Duncan Williams, Ian Keatley, F Jones.
Referee - L Hodges (Wales)