| 15.3°C Dublin

O'Callaghan taking nothing for granted in Penney's Munster regime

What a difference a few months make. A Munster outfit that was seemingly so depressed by over-familiarity and conservatism is now surrounded on all sides by a fresh sense of purpose and renewal.

New coach Rob Penney has ensured that nobody -- from the veteran status enjoyed by Ronan O'Gara to the established quality of Keith Earls -- takes anything for granted anymore.

There is a genuine sense of competition within the squad, so much so that it would be not surprising if Penney, presuming he sticks to his word, decides to omit players such as Earls and O'Gara from big games should their form dip.

Donncha O'Callaghan speaks on behalf of the entire squad when he relates the advantages of such positive action.

"It can only be a good thing," he says, "both from a personal point of view and from a squad perspective. There's a huge challenge laid down.

"That begins with Billy Holland in the second-row beside me, then Donnacha Ryan on the bench, Dave Foley's there and, of course, Paul O'Connell is not too far off either.

"But it's good. It's good for the team and it's good to have a quality player with a high level of ambition challenging all the time.

"No one is guaranteed a place in this team. You have to earn it first and then work hard to keep it. And that's the way it should be."

Penney is keeping his troops on their toes -- and it's working. O'Callaghan is energised, popping off-loads and gambolling into open spaces like an eager teenage Kiwi lock. The talented Earls has been galvanised even more by having his automatic right to a nailed-on position challenged.

O'Gara, too, could be feeling a chill wind. If he doesn't deliver the form Penney is seeking, Ian Keatley will start the big games -- that is the coach's expressed commitment.

Not only have Munster changed; so too have circumstances surrounding today's fixture against the Ospreys.

Last May, Munster trooped from the Liberty Stadium shrouded in embarrassment after a 45-10 trimming in the Pro12 semi-final.

With a stale coach -- Tony McGahan -- already clearing his desk, across the globe his successor, Penney, surveyed the result on the New Zealand news services and grimaced.

Just for a short time, mind. He would not have assumed responsibility for the task had he not been aware of the scale of renovation and resuscitation required.

The initial steps have been welcomed with cautious enthusiasm by supporters since his arrival in mid-summer; his players have been even more energised.

There are green shoots of revival, although Munster should beware an understandable elation; last season, McGahan led his side to six out of six in Heineken Cup qualification and produced one of the performances of the season away to Northampton.

The substance was about as fleeting as a mirage. Nevertheless, as Munster return to the scene of their lowest ebb in some years, they do so brimming with confidence as they head into a defining month, featuring a tussle against rivals Leinster and their opening brace of Heineken Cup challenges.

Their hosts, in stark contrast, look a mere apparition of their customarily cocky selves.

The side that once held a six-year unbeaten European record in Swansea, that once went a whole season unbeaten in all competitions, have succumbed twice already this season. Last season's Pro12 champions are playing like chumps.

Ospreys include Lion Adam Jones in their squad for the first time this season and, strangely, centre Andrew Bishop, who this week was convicted of assault.

Verdict: Munster

Ospreys -- R Fussell; H Dirksen, A Bishop, A Beck, T Isaacs; D Biggar, K Fotuali'i; R Bevington, R Hibbard, A Jarvis, A Wyn Jones (capt), I Evans, R Jones, J Bearman, J Tipuric. Replacements: S Baldwin, D Jones, A Jones, J Thomas, G Stowers, R Webb, M Morgan, R Jones

Munster -- D Hurley; D Howlett (capt), K Earls, C Laulala, S Zebo; R O'Gara, C Murray; W Du Preez, M Sherry, S Archer, D O'Callaghan, B Holland, T O'Donnell, N Ronan, P Butler. Replacements: D Varley, D Kilcoyne, BJ Botha, D Ryan, P O'Mahony, P Stringer, I Keatley, J Downey.

Ref -- D Phillips (IRFU)

Ospreys v Munster,

Live, RTE 2, 6.30

Irish Independent