Saturday 14 December 2019

David Wallace: First real test is to halt the Ospreys' flying start

Every league win is vital with four Irish teams now in contention

Munster's Eusebio Guinazu in conversation with team manager Niall O'Donovan
Munster's Eusebio Guinazu in conversation with team manager Niall O'Donovan

With all due respect to Munster's first three opponents of the Guinness Pro12 campaign, the arrival of league leaders Ospreys means things very serious all of a sudden. This is a real test of this Munster team.

With such huge importance now placed on making it into the top six of the Pro12 in order to qualify for the Champions Cup, winning these type of games against teams that are likely to be in contention for silverware is vital. When you see Connacht beating Leinster last week it shows how competitive this league is going to be this year so every win is priceless.

Connacht seem to have really hit the ground running this season with three from three, and with a raft of guys like Mils Muliaina and Bundee Aki still to come into the squad, we could have a realistic battle with four Irish teams fighting for three European slots. Their progress adds a different element to the season.

That shift in focus has made league position Munster's number one priority. Garrett Fitzgerald identified it last year, he said that the Pro12 was going to have to be number one and he was right. Teams are going full steam for league wins now, which makes tomorrow's game all the more exciting.

It has been an impressive start to the season from Ospreys as well: three wins, 16 tries scored and only two conceded has left them riding high at the top. Last week they put more than 60 points past Edinburgh, a side that have already beaten Munster at Thomond Park this season. That shows you where they are at.

It's an impressive start given that Adam Jones, Richard Hibbard, Ian Evans, Matthew Morgan and Ryan Jones left the squad in the close season and people assumed they would struggle this year. But Dan Biggar seems to be steering the ship there and they are certainly a force to be reckoned with this year.

Ideally Munster would have liked a sterner test last weekend than the one Zebre posed in preparation. It was more of a training run and an easy five-try win, but you cannot take anything away from Munster, they did their job efficiently.


Simon Zebo was the big highlight of the night and his first half hat-trick meant the second half was a bit of a non-event. I was also pleased to Johnny Holland perform so well in his first competitive start for Munster, unfortunately he took a knock early on, but he was impressive before that.

Jack O'Donoghue was another that caught my eye. He seemed to be thrown in at the deep end at late notice after Sean Dougall's injury, but he acquitted himself very well. That kind of game will be of huge benefit to him and he didn't look out of place physicality either.

My only concern about the game was Munster's tendency to overuse the chop-tackle. The aim of it is to target the ankles of the opposition in the hope that they go straight to deck, fall length-ways down the pitch, which gives the next defender the chance to get their hands on the ball in the attempt at a poach.

It is an effective tool when executed properly, but you need to pick your battles. If there is an over-reliance on it, attackers will learn and step out of it or run around them. It is obviously something that Anthony Foley is keen for them to do, but there needs to be a good blend of all tackling techniques. We saw just one choke-tackle from Paul O'Connell and it produced a turnover.

I would imagine the management were not too bothered about the final quarter but it was an opportunity to put a hefty total up. Just look how ruthless Ospreys were against Edinburgh last weekend.

This will be their first real test of the season, but it's the first of a handful of tough games down the road with Leinster to follow next week before Europe soon follows.

Munster will certainly be up for this game, there is no chance of complacency, that's for sure. Traditionally Ospreys and Munster have been involved in some hugely physical encounters and I expect it to be no different tomorrow.

There will be no surprises, we know well Ospreys are going, but I think Munster have the ability to win it. Expect a tight, attritional battle, but I expect to see Munster's pack step up for this one.

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