Sunday 19 November 2017

'New home' with excellent atmosphere can help Reds kick on

Uplifting rout of Sale catapults more Munster men into Ireland contention

Peter O'Mahony
Peter O'Mahony
Keith Earls was back in excellent form during Munster's win against Sale (Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE)

David Wallace

After last weekend's display against Sale Sharks, I'd imagine the Munster representation in the Irish camp are feeling a bit more confident about themselves.

Imagine if they had headed for Carton House with the Saracens result hanging over them, as opposed to a 65-10 romp against Sharks. It would have made for a tough first week shaking off that disappointment.

Sitting down to try and pick my Six Nations team, you'd have to think that a minimum of four Munster players will start against Italy. I think we'll see five, and hopefully it might even get to six.

First of all the certainties. As captain Paul O'Connell will definitely start in the second-row. He was back on form against Sharks following a tough week against Sarries, but even then his place was never in doubt.

Depending on injuries elsewhere, I expect Peter O'Mahony to play at either blindside or openside flanker. This positioning largely depends on tonight's Wolfhounds game and whether some of the back-rows put in a performance good enough to warrant a spot in Rome, but he'll play somewhere for sure.

If O'Mahony is named at No 6, Joe Schmidt could well give Tommy O'Donnell a run at No 7. Last season Chris Henry was the first choice, but he is out, so it's between O'Donnell and Jordi Murphy. I'd go with Tommy - his all-round game has improved hugely and he has a bit more bite in defence.

If he is fit, Conor Murray is a certainty at scrum half, while Simon Zebo has also upped his performances of late and should get a run on the left wing.

The big question for Schmidt is Keith Earls. He looked excellent at outside-centre last weekend and I'd love to see himself and Robbie Henshaw line up together for Ireland. What a 12-13 combination that would be!

I was pleasantly surprised to watch Keith at the weekend. He was very physical in the tackle - he has obviously worked hard during his lay-off - but also seemed to be as sharp as ever. How long is it since we saw a Munster player run in a try like that?

Punt

Dave Foley would likely have made the bench only for his wrist injury, but Ian Keatley has an outside chance of starting against Italy, although I suspect that Schmidt will punt on Ian Madigan at out-half this time, largely because he knows his game so well.

Keatley has the advantage of extended game time in the No 10 shirt of late; Madigan had a poor day with the boot last weekend against Wasps; though Keats would have been annoyed to miss a tackle on Tom Arscott for the Sale try. It really is touch and go between them.

I'm sure Schmidt has his team almost finalised in his head, but tonight at Irish Independent Park is certain to throw a spanner in the works somewhere. There will be an injury along the way or a brilliant performance from someone coming back from injury that will mean it's back to the drawing board.

Tighthead prop is one position that is still up for grabs: does he stick with Mike Ross, who has had very little game time, or will Nathan White get his debut? Also loosehead is far from certain, seeing as Cian Healy has zero game-time under his belt. James Cronin could well come into the equation.

But most of all tonight I'm looking forward to seeing the new Irish Independent Park. I hear the redevelopment has transformed the place and it really looks like it will be a magical ground to play in for the Wolfhounds and Munster.

We have seen the way the Clan Terrace has changed the Sportsground in Galway and on big match days the atmosphere there is excellent. I think we could well see something like that in the Irish Independent Park going forward with the new covered terrace.

It will really be Munster's home of the rest of the season too. The province will only play one more game in Thomond Park in the rest of the regular season - versus Connacht in April - while Cardiff, Glasgow, Treviso and Dragons will all play come to Cork.

Hopefully Munster can find some good form to christen the new ground and kick on for the rest of the season and end it on a high by challenging for the Pro12 title.

Irish Independent

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