Munster to lay down a marker
FIRST we take Glasgow, then we take Toulon ...
That appears to be the Munster attitude heading into tonight's Magners League assignment against the Warriors at Musgrave Park (7.30) as coach Tony McGahan gives his Heineken Cup front-liners the opportunity to make a powerful statement ahead of next week's crucial trip to France.
Prop Tony Buckley is ruled out with a virus, so John Hayes start at tight-head, while Darragh Hurley gets his chance at loose-head in place of Wian du Preez.
Buckley and Du Preez have been the first-choice prop combination for Munster this season and you would imagine, fitness permitting, that they will be reinstated for the Toulon test but, those two aside, the team looks as close as possible to the one that will take to the Stade Felix Mayol.
Scrum-half Peter Stringer will face a stern challenge from Tomas O'Leary next week but the former is having a good season and a strong performance this evening would make a convincing argument for retention -- although O'Leary should get a chance to impress off the bench also.
Paul O'Connell will be available for Toulon and arguments have been made for throwing him straight back into the fray next weekend but Mick O'Driscoll has been consistently effective in O'Connell's absence and another big game in tandem with Donncha O'Callaghan, against a strong Glasgow partnership of Richie Gray and Alastair Kellock, would promote the case for continuity.
Lifeimi Mafi is selected at centre next to Keith Earls and if that combination produces the goods in attack and can shackle Max Evans in defence, it could be enough to keep Sam Tuitupou on the bench next weekend.
Glasgow have a particularly strong pack, notably the back-row where the excellent John Beattie returns at No 8 to pack down alongside one of Europe's premier open-sides, John Barclay.
It is a worthy test for Munster captain Denis Leamy, David Wallace and James Coughlan, fit again after recovering from his cheekbone injury, while Donnacha Ryan and Niall Ronan provide good back-five options off the bench.
The Munster backline looks too strong for their opponents, although Evans and Italian full-back Bernardo Stortoni are inventive runners in broken play and DTH van der Merwe has the power to test Doug Howlett.
Glasgow's league form has been as underwhelming as Munster's has been impressive and they languish in 10th position on 20 points, 25 behind their table-topping opponents. Sean Lineen's side have one victory -- 30-18 at home to Edinburgh over Christmas -- from their last five outings in all competitions and have not won away from home since beating Scarlets last May.
Munster have dropped just three out of a possible 30 points at home this season and have won four out of their last five clashes with Glasgow -- the sole reverse a 21-18 defeat at Musgrave Park in 2008. It points to another home victory and, as much as laying down a marker for Toulon, players such as Ronan O'Gara, Stringer, left-wing Johne Murphy and Leamy will want to remind Ireland coach Declan Kidney of their Six Nations credentials.
Lineen believes that if his side are to upset the odds, they need to exert dominance up front and limit the influence of Munster's generals.
"They have particular strength at nine and 10 with players like Peter Stringer, Tomas O'Leary, Ronan O'Gara and Paul Warwick," said Lineen. "We need to match their physicality and that starts up front with the forwards."
Worthy sentiments and, with a back-row and front-five to provide ball and win penalties, plus a footballing out-half in Ruairidh Jackson, Glasgow should be competitive. However, it is hard to see past a relatively comfortable Munster win which, if it is married with set-piece proficiency and attacking potency, should give them confidence for the bigger challenge ahead.
MUNSTER -- P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, L Mafi, J Murphy; R O'Gara, P Stringer; D Hurley, D Varley, J Hayes; D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll; J Coughlan, D Wallace, D Leamy (capt). Reps: M Sherry, D Kilcoyne, P Borlase, D Ryan, N Ronan, T O'Leary, S Tuitupou, D Hurley.
GLASGOW -- B Stortoni; A Dunbar, M Evans, P Murchie, DTH van der Merwe; R Jackson, C Gregor; R Grant, D Hall, M Low; R Gray, A Kellock; R Harley, J Barclay, J Beattie. Reps: P MacArthur, K Tkachuk, J Welsh, A Muldowney, R Wilson, H Pyrgos, D McCall, P Horne.
REF -- J Jones (Wales)
Munster v Glasgow,
Live, RTE 2, 7.30