O'Connell can inspire Reds to extinguish Dragons' fire
IT would be incorrect to suggest Paul O'Connell's return to active duty could not have come at a better time for Rob Penney and Munster. It would have been better had he been available last weekend when they were coughing up four points to Treviso!
Losing to Italian opposition once – as they did last season – is an oddity. Doing so twice isn't exactly alarming. It is, however, concerning.
O'Connell is the dominant personality and presence in the Munster set-up. His influence and importance is all the more pronounced this season because of the departures of Ronan O'Gara and Doug Howlett.
He sets the standards for his team-mates. Even starting on the bench, as he does tonight, he will still be the defining figure in red.
James Coughlan, Donnacha Ryan, Denis Hurley and Casey Laulala are all given the weekend off as coach Rob Penney continues his squad rotation policy, and there are a number of positional changes.
These include the shifting of Keith Earls from the wing to outside-centre. Earls continues to float around the backline and it's likely he will alternate between positions for the season as Penney – and probably Joe Schmidt – try to settle on a more permanent role for the 25-year-old.
The in-form Johne Murphy returns having been rested last week, and Andrew Conway also starts, but it's the selection at half-back that is most interesting.
The speculation linking Conor Murray with one of the big-spending French clubs is continuing to grow and if Munster do lose him at the end of the season they are banking on Cathal Sheridan's progression to soften the blow.
Duncan Williams remains a key figure too. He had a tough 2012-13 campaign but it should not be underestimated just how beneficial his first full pre-season since signing for Munster in 2009 will be – the 27-year-old has always been carrying or recovering from some injury or another during previous pre-seasons.
The most interesting pick is that of JJ Hanrahan at out-half.
Penney has already acknowledged that Ian Keatley is his first choice at this juncture, and Keatley's form with the Emerging Ireland side during their summer tour and in the Celtic League games he has played makes it astonishing that Schmidt overlooked him for his Ireland training camp at the start of the week.
The battle between him and Hanrahan will be compelling viewing this season. Both 10s are quick, have soft hands, the vision to spot a gap and are effective line-breakers.
Where Hanrahan perhaps has the upper-hand is in his ability to spot opportunities. His try against Edinburgh when he came off Sheridan's shoulder to charge over was the perfect example of his vision and power.
Hanrahan has the strength to break the first tackle and when he does go it invariably forces the opposition to commit two defenders to stop him which creates an overlap out wide. This is a particularly effective weapon in the Penney blue-print of getting the ball out to the wide channels.
If he and Earls strike up a relationship tonight it could yield precious dividend.
Dragons have made a number of changes from the side that beat Cardiff at Rodney Parade last weekend.
Matthew Pewtner comes in on the right wing, with Tom Prydie moving to the left.
Italy out-half Kris Burton steps into the No 10 jersey as Jason Tovey moves to the bench, and young gun Jonathan Evans replaces Richie Rees at scrum-half.
The front-row also gets a shake up as Phil Price and Hugh Gustafson are named and Francisco Chaparro takes over at tighthead prop.
Dragons have enjoyed a positive start to the season with two home wins but with O'Connell ready to be unleashed for the home side, it will surely be too much to expect them to add Munster's scalp this time around.
MUNSTER – J Murphy; A Conway, K Earls, I Dineen, S Zebo; JJ Hanrahan, C Sheridan; J Cronin, D Varley, J Ryan; D O'Callaghan, D Foley; P O'Mahony, S Dougall, P Butler. Reps: M Sherry, D Kilcoyne, S Archer, P O'Connell, CJ Stander, D Williams, I Keatley, F Jones.
DRAGONS – D Evans; M Pewtner, R Wardle, J Dixon, T Prydie; K Burton, J Evans; P Price, H Gustafson, F Chaparro; A Coombs, M Screech; J Groves, L Evans, N Talei. Reps: S Parry, O Evans, D Way, R Sidoli, I Jones, R Rees, J Tovey, A Hughes.
Ref – Neil Paterson.
Munster v Newport Gwent Dragons, Live, S4C, 6.45