Sport Rugby

Saturday 16 December 2017

McGahan eager to lay down marker

Munster boss puts faith in O'Leary to stop Ospreys getting best foot forward

Peter Stringer will be gutted to miss out after his recent good form. Photo: Sportsfile
Peter Stringer will be gutted to miss out after his recent good form. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

You cannot win the Heineken Cup in December -- but you can certainly lose it. Pool Three, so tight that all its home teams remain 100pc after two rounds, will not be defined over the next two weekends, but a definite shape will be gleaned.

In Limerick this week, you could almost smell the Heineken Cup's return as Munster immersed themselves in their utterly familiar routine, even if it's recognisable foes who will visit.

"You have to look at each match on its own merits," says Reds supremo Tony McGahan, aware of the danger that doing the maths for two games can militate against unwavering focus on the first.

"But it's most important to get the first result right. We're at home first up, so there's a lot of pressure on us. You have to make sure that you win your games at home and don't have to chase up and catch up points.

"So, if we can get the result this week, we can turn up the heat on them next week. Whether you're away or at home, to get the first win is really important.

"I think when you hear the Heineken Cup, regardless of who you're playing, that brings an immediate call of attention. There is that familiarity, but we've only played them once this season and we're going in fresh and really aware of their current form. We know what they did last season, turning us over twice. That's still fresh in our memory and we're keen to undertake the job this season."

Munster's selection was difficult given the range of options, but ultimately transparent given McGahan's personal preferences, particularly at scrum-half, where he ignores Peter Stringer's outstanding form.

Stringer will be gutted after losing out to Tomas O'Leary. Paul O'Connell is predictably benched, but his presence in this week of all weeks offers Munster an undoubted boon, while Alan Quinlan remains a menacing presence from the reserves.

Fully aware of their recent record, and deliberately ignoring a 43-9 quarter-final wipe-out here in 2009, the Welsh visitors are in uppity humour, despite a week of turmoil.

This week, their star back-line player (Lee Byrne) was slammed by his club for going AWOL from an urgent medical appointment.

Oh, and we should not forget their little spot of difficulty with tickets.

Now Mike Phillips, their redoubtable scrum-half, has upped the verbals, joining a lengthy queue of folk who have deigned to script Munster's obituary.

There will soon be a support group for his ilk. You wonder will they ever learn. Not content with proving their physical mettle on Irish soil last year, Philips chose this week to rattle the red cage, his envy transmuting not too subtly into spite.

"As a player I am jealous of the support they have," says Philips, whose significant presence as a veritable ninth forward undoubtedly provoked McGahan into the selection of O'Leary.

"We had 6,000 for our game last week, but wherever they go they get thousands upon thousands following them. I am jealous of that because it does place a big burden on referees, especially when they are at home.

"We played there last year and won in the Magners League for the first time. That means we know we are capable of getting a victory over there.

"They haven't been as successful as they would have liked and maybe it is tapering down a bit there. They (have) a lot of senior players and maybe they are coming into their twilight years, but we are pretty confident and building a good squad."

Munster's reaction to yet another predicted demise by an opponent will be just as expected -- one anticipates a composed, yet hugely physical examination of their visitors, allied to an accurate kicking game.

Expect an opening blitz of physical assault to dominate the breakdown, and a familiar exercise at Thomond Park accountancy as Munster seek to build the proverbial 3-6-9 lead before turning the screw towards the final quarter.

The Ospreys can be undone by the travails this week which see them shorn of valuable talents -- Shane Williams also remains on the injured list -- and a side seeking to emerge with a bonus often falls short.

"We're going into this game in pretty good shape generally," counters Ospreys' forwards coach, Jonathan Humphreys.

"We've worked hard to build our squad depth and we've seen over the last month to six weeks some players putting their hands up.

"Our squad is a very experienced one, the players have experienced winning Grand Slams, playing in front of big crowds, and as we saw last season they have the know-how to go to places like Munster and win big games.

"We certainly won't be focussing on games that have been and gone, they are in the past. It's about Sunday now, it's a whole new ball game. We all realise that we need to continue improving, we need to be more clinical and get the finer details right.

"We had a good win against Edinburgh last week that made it four successive wins, but we know that there's definitely room for improvement. We'll be working hard to find that extra 10pc, but one thing we do know for sure, is that it's going to be a real test for us."

Certainly, any team with a Hook or Bowe behind are a threat; not allowing them to become one is Munster's task, particularly on the floor and at collision time. Because the Ospreys are not as one-dimensional as before.

Last season, they launched a smash and grab raid here after hardly entering the red zone; Dan Biggar's influence must be limited so Munster's kicking game must be accurate.

These are the days Munster master the best. Ospreys will seek a bonus but if they don't, Munster will have more than one reason to celebrate with next week's return trip then becoming an opportunity to deliver a crucial knock-out blow.

Verdict: Munster to beat the handicap (-8)

Munster -- P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, S Tuitupou, J Murphy; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; W du Preez, D Varley, T Buckley; D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll; J Coughlan, D Wallace, D Leamy (capt). Reps: M Sherry, D Hurley, J Hayes, P O'Connell, A Quinlan, P Stringer, L Mafi, D Hurley.

Ospreys -- B Davies; T Bowe, A Bishop, J Hook, R Fussell; D Biggar, M Phillips; P James, R Hibbard, A Jones, R Jones, A Wyn Jones (capt), J Collins, M Holah, J Thomas. Reps: M Davies, D Jones, C Mitchell, I Gough, J Tipuric/T Smith, J Nutbrown, S Parker, N Walker.

REF -- C Berdos (France).

Munster v Ospreys,

Live, tomorrow, Sky Sports 1, 1.0

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport