Sport Rugby

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Varley eager to maintain Munster momentum

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

THE last time Munster made the trip across the Irish Sea to the Liberty Stadium, their world seemed a very different place.

They suffered a Heineken Cup defeat before Christmas -- they were destroyed up front -- which put them under pressure to get out of their pool and eventually saw them fail to qualify for the quarter-finals.

It was a dark day and a number of reputations were damaged, but in the warm spring light, the 19-15 defeat doesn't seem as bad.

Next week Munster will host Harlequins in the Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final and although it's no substitute for the real thing, the continuing European involvement has kept their edge.

Meanwhile, in the Magners League, Tony McGahan's men have been imperious and arrived in Swansea under no pressure. They are home and hosed, just waiting to see who will join them.

That's where the Ospreys come in. The champions summed up their enigmatic reputation by following that memorable December victory with insipid performances against London Irish and Toulon and slipped -- once again -- into the European wilderness.

On their day, they are imperious. A glance at their replacements' bench for this evening's clash shows a ridiculous level of strength in depth that makes a mockery of their inconsistency.

The hosts need a win here, but the men in red jerseys have long memories and scuppering the Ospreys' play-off chances would suit the visitors just fine, as well as knocking out potentially their most dangerous semi-final opponents.

As a result, McGahan has named a strong team with Keith Earls, Ronan O'Gara, Donncha O'Callaghan and David Wallace returning among 14 changes after the win in Llanelli last weekend.

Felix Jones starts at full-back with Paul Warwick reverting to centre, while Simon Zebo is on the bench and Johne Murphy misses out with an eye injury. Marcus Horan and Donnacha Ryan are retained up front as Ian Nagle partners O'Callaghan in the second-row.

The Ospreys look strong with Lee Byrne at full-back and James Hook operating in the centre.

Wales and Lions tight-head prop Adam Jones will look to put pressure on the Munster scrum, as in turn will Alun-Wyn Jones and Ian Gough in the second-row.

Munster will want to do the job early, as a bench with Ryan Jones, Jerry Collins, Mike Phillips and Andrew Bishop is not one you want to see unloaded with the game in the balance.

With the Challenge Cup in the offing, Munster hooker Damien Varley wants the bandwagon to keep rolling.

"It's all about momentum and keeping that as we go into the final stages of the season," he said.

"We have the semi-final of the Amlin the following weekend and this game couldn't come at a better time in that context.

"There is also huge competition for places in the squad, so everyone's playing for their place and looking for a good performance to stake a claim for inclusion next time around."

The Ospreys have more to play for, but their form is shaky. They should have enough to win, but not by much.

Verdict: Ospreys.

OSPREYS -- L Byrne; N Walker, T Bowe, J Hook, R Fussell; D Biggar, R Webb; R Bevington, R Hibbard, A Jones; I Gough, AW Jones (capt); J Tipuric, M Holah, J Thomas. Reps: H Bennett, P James, D Jones, R Jones, J Collins, M Phillips, A Bishop, S Parker.

Munster - F Jones; D Howlett, L Mafi, P Warwick, K Earls; R O'Gara (capt), C Murray; M Horan, D Varley, J Hayes; I Nagle, D O'Callaghan; D Ryan, D Wallace, J Coughlan. Reps: Sherry, W du Preez, T Buckley, T O'Donnell, N Ronan, P Stringer, D Barnes, S Zebo.

REF - Jerome Garces (France).

Ospreys v Munster,

Live, RTE2, 6.30

Irish Independent

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