Sunday 16 June 2019

Paul O'Connell eyeing up three games in three weeks

Paul O'Connell is hoping for a Munster win today
Paul O'Connell is hoping for a Munster win today
Paul O’Connell will be keen to secure a home semi-final (Sportsfile)
David Kelly

David Kelly

Paul O'Connell doesn't know if he will ever grace Cork's playing fields again but the Ireland captain will be determined to finish the regular season on a high at Irish Independent Park.

Trophy success will not sway his retirement decision but his primary concern will be helping his side's attempt to guarantee the home semi-final that history determines is so crucial for those seeking to land the silverware.

Presuming Munster win, O'Connell would have to prepare for a rarity in his recent professional career - three games in as many weeks. But Munster obviously feel it is a risk worth taking, especially as they have a clutch of first-teamers sidelined.

Even a bonus-point victory may not be enough for a home tie, though, if Ospreys and Glasgow can come up with five-pointers themselves to ensure that both Irish semi-finalists must travel for next weekend's play-offs.


Munster need to do their job first and hope that favours can be granted elsewhere by their Irish colleagues; it will not just be Connacht supporters cheering the Westerners on against Ospreys this weekend, while an Ulster win in Glasgow could offer the Reds a leg-up, too.

No away side has ever won away in a Pro12 knock-out clash, a remarkable statistic and one that will focus the minds of Anthony Foley's men as they seek the expected win against a Dragons side who have nothing tangible to play for.

Munster's professional attitude won't allow them to get distracted by such thoughts.

"We've got a job to do," said the coach who began the season with a whirl of controversy and, European failure aside, has helmed his side more than competently throughout the regular league campaign.

"We will have somebody keeping an eye on what's going on elsewhere but there isn't a points margin to chase.

"It's four points or five points, it's not that you need to score an extra few points or anything like that.

"We will keep an eye on it and I think the Ulster-Glasgow game will be a cracking game anyway. And Connacht-Ospreys up there, I think Connacht have a lot to play for as well.

"So it will be competitive right to the end. You have one game to go and there's three teams all on 70 points, one team on 69 that shows how competitive it is."

Foley has made few risks with his side, although it has been confirmed that Tommy O'Donnell sustained a torn hamstring in Saturday's game against Ulster and is expected to be sidelined for two months, curtailing his early involvement in Ireland's pre-season beginning in late June.

Simon Zebo is another ruled out of this weekend's action after failing to recover fully from back spasms; however, the winger is expected to make a return to full training next week.

Duncan Casey and Peter O'Mahony were late withdrawals from this week's squad preparations, with the hooker reporting mild back pain after the squad captain picked up a knock in training yesterday. As with Zebo, both players are expected to take a full part in next week's programme.

In total, five personnel changes are made to the side that drew 23-23 in Belfast, with Denis Hurley named as captain for the sixth time this season.

John Ryan and BJ Botha come into the front-row on either side of Eusebio Guinazu and with Donnacha Ryan making the switch to blindside this weekend, Billy Holland returns to the starting line-up alongside O'Connell in the second-row.

This is the first time O'Connell has played at the redeveloped ground - the last time he played in Cork was also against the Dragons in September 2013. Ryan is joined in the back-row by Paddy Butler and last weekend's man of the match CJ Stander.

Conor Murray and Ian Keatley (who wins his 100th Munster cap) remain at half-back, with Hurley and Andrew Smith in the centre, while the only change in the backline sees Ronan O'Mahony step in for Zebo.

For the visitors, 27-year-old hooker Hugh Gustafson is rewarded for an impressive performance off the bench in last week's 19-5 win against Edinburgh.

Director of rugby Lyn Jones brings in two other new faces, with Dorian Jones returning at our-half, allowing Jason Tovey return to full-back, while Jonathan Evans gets the nod at scrum-half.

"Munster will have the incentive of getting points for a home semi-final so it's going to be a huge challenge for us," said Jones.

Munster have won their last nine matches in Cork since Cardiff Blues beat them there 17 months ago.

Dragons have already ensured that they will finish in ninth place and have lost just one of their last five matches in the competition, winning three of their four clashes with Irish provinces since the turn of the year.

But the Welshmen's only victory over Munster in their last eight encounters came at Rodney Parade in April 2013, while the only time they have been triumphant on Munster soil was on their very first meeting at Thomond Park in March 2004.

Verdict: Munster.

Munster - F Jones; K Earls, A Smith, D Hurley (c), R O'Mahony; I Keatley, C Murray; J Ryan, E Guinazu, BJ Botha, B Holland, P O'Connell, D Ryan, P Butler, CJ Stander. Reps: N Scannell, D Kilcoyne, S Archer, S Dougall, J O'Donoghue, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, A Conway.

Newport Gwent Dragons - J Tovey; T Prydie, T Morgan, J Dixon, H Amos; D Jones, J Evans; B Stankovich, H Gustafson, B Harris, C Hill, R Landman (c), N Crosswell, N Cudd, T Faletau.

Reps: R Buckley, P Price, L Fairbrother, M Screech, J Benjamin, R Rees, A Hewitt, G Rhys Jones.

Ref - B Whitehouse (WRU)

Munster v Dragons,

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