Sunday 25 February 2018

Kicking and set-piece battle hold key

Munster have the X-factor that will be needed to get to decider

Concentration is the name of the game for Conor Murray during training at the University of Limerick
Concentration is the name of the game for Conor Murray during training at the University of Limerick

David Wallace

It's a huge weekend for Munster Rugby and I'm confident that they can see off Ospreys tomorrow in Thomond Park but the players certainly won't be taking that for granted.

Last weekend served up two great games in Edinburgh with Stade Francais finally getting over the line in the Challenge Cup, and this great Saracens team seeing off Clermont in the all-important Champions Cup decider.

That one in particular seemed like a real classic. Billy Vunipola had another colossal outing and he is just such a tremendous player considering his size, and the way he has the ability to step guys with his wonderful footwork before the tackle.

It will be interesting to see what Warren Gatland does on the Lions tour, but surely Billy will be at No 8, and then CJ Stander will slot in at blindside flanker, with a number of possibilities for the openside berth. 

The fact that there are so many Lions involved in the Saracens set-up, you would have been a bit worried had they not won the Champions Cup final. It might have thrown up some vulnerabilities in their game. But as it stands they travel full of confidence.

Mako Vunipola and Jack McGrath is another intriguing face-off for the Lions No 1 jersey. With his brilliant work-rate around the park, Vunipola would probably get the nod on current form.

It was great to have Axel remembered, with the EPCR Player of the Year Award being named the 'Anthony Foley Memorial Trophy'. He was obviously steeped in the competition and it's a nice way to signify his contribution to the European Cup over the years.

Owen Farrell won it and he will be looking to edge Johnny Sexton for that No 10 jersey on tour. Farrell can play at inside centre too but it wouldn't be like Warren Gatland to have a man of his size in the 12 channel.

There is a possibility that Farrell and Sexton might be inter-changed between matches, but it's great to have the depth, where you have Dan Biggar there too.

In a play-off like this anything can happen and Munster will be going in full of confidence, but they won't be thinking that home advantage will get them over the line.


Ospreys have plenty of ammunition and they will have the need for revenge after the years of losing a few semi-finals and finals. They will feel they owe Munster one or two wins at least. They also have a few Lions and they have players like Sam Underhill and Justin Tipuric in the back-row, and will come with a loaded bench.

They have a great kicking game with Dan Biggar and Dan Evans et al, but Munster do too. Against Saracens, Munster were forced into errors especially as a result of the pressure that Saracens put them under in the breakdown. Munster should have more time on the ball against Ospreys and more options for their kicking game.

Munster are playing so well at the moment. They have guys like Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and Darren Sweetnam, with the latter really back up to speed and even better than he was before he got injured. Sweetnam has the ability to unlock defences. Munster will be able to find and make gaps, and they will have a more rounded game-plan.

In the scrum, John Ryan has obviously been going from strength to strength all season and another big performance from him would put him right in contention if there are any casualties on the Lions tour.

Even against Saracens he got Munster in the ascendency quite a bit - he had them under real pressure at the start of the match. Hopefully it will be a big performance from him again, and a good set-piece is always key to winning of these matches.

An all-Ireland final would be a great way to round off the season but realistically I don't think too many Munster Rugby fans will be cheering on Leinster against Scarlets.

And it's not just because of the rivalry; if Leinster win that game they basically have a home final against whoever comes out of the Munster and Ospreys game. 

However, if Scarlets win it would mean they have to travel to Dublin for the final, and that's a much more attractive prospect for Munster.

Irish Independent

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