For all the talk of an away team never winning a Guinness PROI12 semi-final, the flip side is naturally that no home team has ever lost one and Munster will not want to be the ones to let that statistic slide this evening.
Pressure is a given as far as Munster are concerned when knockout rugby arrives at Thomond Park and Rassie Erasmus’s side will not have looked kindly on an internet bookmaker already issuing odds on the outcome of a final between them and Leinster, a development seized upon by Welsh media yesterday afternoon.
The Ospreys, widely written off following the loss of five of their last six games to emphasise their underdog status, were already travelling as if they were playing with house money.
Now they have a chip on their shoulder and that could be a dangerous combination in Limerick when they will field their four British & Irish Lions, led by fit-again Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones.
“We have nothing to fear. We are in a semi-final. We have nothing to lose,” Ospreys head coach Steve Tandy said.
“No team has ever won an away-day semi-final.
“Why can’t we be the first or, hopefully, the second Welsh team to do it (the Scarlets playing Leinster at the RDS last night)? It would be huge and it would buck the trend.
“We believe in ourselves. Form would suggest it’s probably going to be a home win, but we have a belief in what we are. We have to get it right tactically and improve in certain areas. Our boys will be buzzing and ready to go.”
Ospreys will also be armed with the memory of their narrow defeat to Munster in Limerick at the same stage of the competition two seasons ago, when only the intervention of the TMO to disallow a late try denied them that historic away win.
Yet this is a very different home side that will be welcoming them to Thomond Park this evening, stronger in spirit, more tenacious in defence, sharper in attack.
Better balanced and on a mission under their first-season director of rugby Erasmus to right the wrongs of their Champions Cup semi-final exit to Saracens a month ago.
The South African saw his side sign off on the regular league season with a bonus-point 50-14 crushing of Connacht that was good enough to edge their other neighbours Leinster from the top spot.
And such is the strength developing in the squad, Erasmus has been able to make 12 changes from that game a fortnight ago, giving starts to Munster’s 2017 Lions Conor Murray, CJ Stander, and captain Peter O’Mahony.
Donnacha Ryan and Francis Saili are set to start in the second row and centre respectively, each making their final appearances at Thomond Park following yesterday’s confirmation of their summer exits, as Munster retain only lock Billy Holland and back three players Keith Earls and Andrew Conway from round 22, the latter switching from full-back to wing to accommodate the return of Simon Zebo.
Murray returned from a two-month absence off the bench against Connacht and will resume his partnership with fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal, who has recovered from a bicep injury as the scrum-half makes his 99th appearance for Munster in an intriguing clash with Ospreys’ Wales and Lions half-backs Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar.
With so many game breakers on both sides, forwards and backs, this contest may well boil down to who best sets the tempo and manages the game.
Both pairings have what it takes to get the job done but home advantage, better form and a stronger Munster pack marshalled by Murray and Bleyendaal should see the Reds into next Saturday’s Aviva Stadium final.
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