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Munster ready for Thomond take-off


Paul O’Connell warms up for training at Thomond Park yesterday as Munster prepare for Saturday’s Pro12 semi-final at home to Ospreys DIARMUID GREENE/SPORTSFILE

Paul O’Connell warms up for training at Thomond Park yesterday as Munster prepare for Saturday’s Pro12 semi-final at home to Ospreys DIARMUID GREENE/SPORTSFILE


Paul O’Connell warms up for training at Thomond Park yesterday as Munster prepare for Saturday’s Pro12 semi-final at home to Ospreys DIARMUID GREENE/SPORTSFILE

There was a time it was deemed sporting suicide if a visiting team refused to become overawed by the prospect of attempting to plunder Thomond Park.

Those days have long since passed.

Now even the tenants are in agreement that the fear factor has been evicted from the premises as they prepare to welcome Ospreys this weekend for a Guinness Pro12 semi-final.

"They won't have any fear coming here," declared Munster coach Anthony Foley in as matter-of-fact a manner one can manage while seemingly ripping up the rugby gospel around these parts.

"They've won here this season. So it's up to us to produce our own performance that we can stand over."

No team have won an away Pro12 semi-final but plenty have won in Thomond Park in recent times, Ospreys amongst the swelling number.

And from South Wales last night came similarly stirring endorsements that this once proud sporting citadel remains rather less the unimpeachable fortress of yore, if Ospreys' back-row Dan Baker's blithe unconcern is believable.

"It's just a stat, no-one ever winning away," trumpeted Baker. "And it's there to be changed. We are capable of winning and we are working hard to do it. We know what we have got to do."

That they have done so already this season will imbue them with confidence. They have not been the only team to loot Limerick of late.

Indeed, Foley's first game in charge this term was an embarrassing reversal against Challenge Cup-bound Edinburgh on day one when the stadium was rather less than half-full.

In the subsequent weeks, Foley and others were reduced to desperate entreaties for supporters to back his side but they mostly fell on deaf ears.

The crowd plummeted still further, below 10,000, for the visit of Zebre and was barely roused when this Saturday's opponents snatched a September victory, before Foley's men, belatedly, acquired some momentum from beating Leinster in Dublin.

Saturday will mark only their second game in Limerick in 2015 and, while Foley's men derived much of their semi-final momentum from their residence in Irish Independent Park, particularly during a fruitful Six Nations window, he hopes Thomond can be restored to former glory.

The swift turnaround doesn't help, especially as the game isn't included on season tickets but, with 12,000 sold yesterday amidst brisk business, Foley is optimistic.

Munster supporters in this region will come out and support us - they've done it any time we've played here," he said.

"After a poor start to the season, they didn't walk away from us, they stuck with us. With a new coaching group and some new players, we grew. And we're now at the back end of the season where there has been a lot of growth.

"For any team to come to Thomond Park, it's just a pitch and a stadium. What always made it special were the people in the stands, and the atmosphere that they brought with them.

"That allowed us to feed off them, they fed off us as well and there was a mutual respect there. They knew how important it was for us to win for Munster and they came along to support us in that.

"And from there, great days and great nights were grown. I don't think you can ever plan them. It's very hard to do, particularly in Thomond Park.

"From my end, the great days we've had here have been on the back of the players going out and doing their business on the pitch.

"When we needed a help throughout the years, the supporters were there for us. Hopefully we'll see the same on Saturday."

The one caveat of Munster's season remains their premature exit in Europe - under Foley's predecessor, Rob Penney, supporters enjoyed two semi-finals in successive years, and missing out this year was a stunning blow.

A first title success in four years might salve any residual wounds.

"When you get to this stage of the season, you'd feel that people might start taking short-cuts or are getting tired," continued Foley. "But we're doing more, the boys are fresher and doing whatever it takes to get the edge on the opposition.

"Everything we do needs to have a purpose and relevance because Ospreys are a very good side.

"Our players are young and ambitious as well and want to win trophies. We're a step away from that and in order to take that step we need to do a job on Saturday.

"We know Ospreys have a depth of experience of coming here and winning. They obviously have a calibre about them in that they led this competition for a time.

"They got off to a great start, but as with every competition that runs as long as ours does, they had a bit of a dip about Christmas down to the Six Nations, but they have now gone seven games unbeaten.

"They're the last team to have beaten us so they are one of those teams that are lining you up. We're fully aware of good they are and we won't be taking them lightly."

Munster's suffocating shroud of invincibility has long since been cast off; they are without a trophy since 2011, a yawning chasm for such a once dominant European force.

But there are signs that the elusive cocktail that the province have vainly sought in recent times - a deadly concoction of traditional forward power and deft incision out wide - is slowly gathering speed.

"We're getting there," said Foley, agreeing that his side became a tad giddy once they had acquired the luxury of a bonus point win against Dragons last time out.

Saturday will see a return to more traditional Cup fare with little chance of an early penalty opportunity being kicked to the corner against Steve Tandy's formidable Welsh outfit.

"Our use of ball is pretty good. Our set-piece is up there with the best in the competition. It's important to look after the ball first. You win it and look after it, we're doing that," said Foley.

"Our backs are looking after it pretty well, they're running good lines off one another. There's nothing been given up easily and we're putting teams under pressure to defend against us.

"And then it's about managing the game and seeing where best it suits us to play the next phase.

"What we do know is we can't give them penalties - we were 8-0 at half-time in the penalty county over there this season, I think.

"That just makes it an uphill struggle to get into the game and keep momentum in the game."

Munster will be happy to receive Welsh referee Nigel Owens but the choice of two Welsh assistants is curious; one wonders if three Irish officials would have officiated in Swansea of the roles were reversed.

Irish Independent