Munster must swoop to conquer high-flying Ospreys
Early days maybe but already a sense that Munster’s season may be demanding some sense of momentum, even if they kick off tonight on the back of two facile league victories.
Albeit much of that fizz was generated with thanks to the gracious compliance of the ever more hapless Italian contingent, already desperately listing in the Guinness Pro12; the memory of that first-night horror show against Edinburgh still lingers in many minds.
Tonight, at Thomond Park, a much stiffer tasks awaits Anthony Foley’s men when they face the only hardy perennial amongst the equally struggling Welsh contingent in the Celtic League, Ospreys, who led the table before this weekend’s fourth round of matches.
Munster’s quest for continuity, amidst a burgeoning injury list, remains a bugbear as they approach the parochial battle against Leinster next weekend.
Only six players retain their starting positions, with last week’s hat-trick hero Simon Zebo rested but, in the pack and half-back at least, there is some semblance of fluidity despite ongoing absentees.
Paul O’Connell, Dave Kilcoyne, Denis Hurley, JJ Hanrahan and Conor Murray will all face their second run-outs of the season as Munster tentatively seek to erase the self-inflicted damage of the horrendous opening day defeat, all the while half-eyeing the opening of European combat in Sale in three weeks’ time.
Foley’s repeated calls for punters to flock through the turnstiles – he has done so for the third successive week – is a marked change from days of yore and, notwithstanding economic and geographical issues, reflective of current uncertainty.
“It’s important that people come out and create a good home atmosphere,” he says. “We need the support if we are to go anywhere in the competition, we need to make Thomond Park a fortress. We’ll do our best on the pitch but we need people to come out and support us as well.”
Kilcoyne makes his first start of the season and the only other change in the tight five sees veteran Donncha O’Callaghan replace Billy Holland, who had played every minute of this season’s Pro12 to date, to form his familiar partnership with O’Connell.
Sean Dougall and CJ Stander, a likely No 8 for next week and Europe, return to join Paddy Butler in the back-row.
Murray will captain the side from scrum-half while Ian Keatley will play outside him, with presumably JJ Hanrahan arriving as a second play-maker at some stage.
After impressing in the centre last time out against Zebre, Hurley will again start at inside-centre alongside Ivan Dineen, with Australian Andrew Smith rested.
Gerhard van den Heever has recovered from a knee injury to make his first appearance of the season on the left wing; Zebo was another who had played 240 minutes this term. Andrew Conway returns to the right wing, with Johne Murphy starting at full-back for the first time this campaign.
The back-line seems unbalanced but a sturdy pack of ball-carriers and set-piece specialists should at least furnish them with chances; Foley wants his side to curate the ball with prudence.
“It’s about proper use of ball more than being flippant with it,” he argues. “We’ve got to protect it and get it into areas where we can cross the gain-line.
“There’s no point in taking it into hard areas every time so when the opportunity presents itself we’ve enough good players and enough guile to execute those opportunities.”
Ospreys looked doomed in the close season after the exodus of stars such as Adam Jones, Richard Hibbard, Ian Evans, Matthew Morgan and Ryan Jones; such is the Welsh way, they have confounded expectations.
They have scored more and conceded less than any other side; their threat is handsomely out wide; their weakness, which Munster must exploit, is in the tight exchanges and set-piece.
“It’ll be a big step up from what we’ve had so far in terms of intensity,” says their assured head coach Steve Tandy. “Munster at Thomond Park is always a difficult environment, so we know that we will have to be on top of our game out there.
“There’ll be tough moments, especially for a young team, but we know that they will give nothing less than 100pc for the cause, whatever the outcome.
“It’s going to be a fantastic experience for some of these young men who are still learning their trade, and it’s another big step forward in their development.
“Although we’ve got three wins from three, we realise that the performances have been far from perfect in many respects.
“It’s a pretty grounded group of players we’ve got and they aren’t getting carried away with themselves.”
Munster have won their last two Pro12 encounters – the least that was expected of them as they were both against Italian opponents. The Munstermen have not won three in a row in the competition since February.
Last season Munster only lost once against the Welsh regions but table-topping Ospreys have won their last four Pro12 matches since tripping up to Zebre in Parma in May. They have been victorious in their last two games against Irish provinces but haven’t compiled an Irish hat-trick since February 2013.
Munster are unbeaten in their last three encounters with Ospreys since the Welshmen’s victory at Liberty Stadium in September 2012, while the visitors have won just once in Limerick since April 2010.
That record may, just, be extended.
Munster – J Murphy; A Conway, I Dineen, D Hurley, G van den Heever; I Keatley, C Murray capt; D Kicloyne, D Casey, BJ Botha, D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell, P Butler, S Dougall, CJ Stander. Reps: K O’Byrne, J Cronin, S Archer, D Foley, J O’Donoghue, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, A Smith.
Ospreys – D Evans; J Hassler, A Bishop, J Matavesi, E Walker; D Biggar, R Webb; N Smith, S Baldwin, A Jarvis, A Wyn Jones capt, R Bernardo, J Bearman, J Tipuric, D Baker. Reps: S Parry, D Jones, D Arhip, J King, M Allen, M Roberts, S Davies, H Dirksen.
Ref – N Hennessy (WRU).
Munster v Ospreys,
Live, Sky Sports, 6.30