All eyes on Munster duo

Andrew Conway, Casey Laulala and James Coughlan enjoy a lighter moment at squad training in UL yesterday. Picture: INPHO

RABO DIRECT PRO12:
Munster v Zebre
Munster bid to keep their RaboDirect Pro12 campaign on track against Zebre tonight (6.45pm) where all eyes at the Musgrave Park clash will be on Donnacha Ryan and Donncha O’Callaghan.

The former is returning to action in a bid to gatecrash Ireland’s Triple Crown bid at Twickenham in seven days as the other bides his time on the bench before becoming Munster’s most-capped player.

This evening’s game will see Ryan play his first game for the league leaders in two months after suffering a second knee injury of the campaign following the Heineken Cup win at Perpignan. That game in France was the lock’s first start since October 19 when he first hurt his knee in an aerial collision with Gloucester’s Rob Cook.

All of which means Ryan has just 53 minutes game time in his locker in the last 17 weeks. Yet with Ulster’s Dan Tuohy out for the rest of the Six Nations and Mike McCarthy only finding his way back into Joe Schmidt’s reckoning following his facial injuries suffered for Leinster last month, the Munsterman will come under the scrutiny of Irish management in Cork tonight with the squad for next Saturday’s trip to England being finalised tomorrow.

Also with a keen interest on how long Ryan lasts at Musgrave Park will be O’Callaghan, poised to surpass Ronan O’Gara’s all-time provincial record of 240 Munster appearances should his services be required tonight.

A month short of his 35th birthday and 15-and-a-half years since he ran out at the same ground in his hometown as a promising 19-year-old, the Ireland and Lions lock, capped 94 times by his country, continues to amaze with his commitment to the Munster cause and his dedicated professionalism.

Head coach Rob Penney is certainly a fan and is astounded by O’Callaghan’s longevity and potential to play on and on.

“What he’s delivered over that period of time, you tie that in with his internationals he’s had 330-odd fixtures to strip down for,” Penney said. “He’s never injured, he’s great warrior. You think how many training runs is that? Goodness he’s put the boots on a lot. He’s terrific, he’s incredibly passionate, all the attributes and superlatives you can think of. A players’ ability to stay in the game for a long time and be consistently good for a long time, he deserves every plaudit he gets.

“You look at his body and how athletic he still is, and the work-rate the man has got. Like Brad Thorn is still playing, and he’s clicked 40. There’s no reason to think Donncha couldn’t do the same. I suspect that it will be slightly different. As a player gets on in his career, the focus isn’t always about their own performance. It’s about growing people around them and being a leader and mentoring, and ensuring that the great culture that Donncha has been a massive part of is maintained.”

Penney suggested making that switch from frontline player to mentor was a challenge for many players, particularly one as driven as O’Callaghan.

“That’s the next challenge for someone of Donncha’s ilk. He’s a very competitive player and long may that continue. The challenge is to go to the next level of leadership and take up a much less selfish orientation towards it. Now that’s really difficult for someone as competitive as Donncha. But that’s where the longevity and satisfaction will come for him on the back of what he’s doing playing-wise.

“He may not always be playing necessarily in the future but being satisfied that he’s still offering a great deal with the group, and still getting enough to satisfy that side of it as well. Because that middle row has become a very competitive area in Munster and the access to other people is equally as important for other people as it is to him.”

Penney has picked a strong side to face the Italians, placed 11th of the 12 Rabo teams. Ryan and captain Billy Holland keep O’Callaghan out of the second-row while Tommy O’Donnell and Felix Jones have been released from the Ireland squad to get some game time. Jones’ inclusion at full-back will see Simon Zebo switch to the left wing as he bids for a Test recall with Gerhard van den Heever on the right wing. There are nine changes to the side that beat Cardiff Blues last week with Penney starting a new centre partnership of Ian Keatley at 12 and Johne Murphy outside him. Keatley’s partnership with starting fly-half JJ Hanrahan is another to watch, the pair having combined well in their previous outing as a 10-12 combination late on in the Heineken Cup win over Edinburgh.

Hanrahan’s half-back partner is Cathal Sheridan, making his return from a knee injury suffered on January 3 at Ulster. O’Donnell forms a back row with CJ Stander at No.8 and Dave O’Callaghan at blindside in his first start since December as Penney seeks to keep the league campaign simmering.

“Simply to build on last week’s second half,” was Penney’s stated objective for tonight.

“There’s a few changes, so again those changes can cause a little bit of inconsistency. I don’t want that to be an excuse, we want this group to play as well as they can at Musgrave in the last time it will be as it is [before redevelopment work starts] and for Donncha.

“And, yeah, just to maximise the outcome really.”

MUNSTER: F Jones; G van den Heever, J Murphy, I Keatley, S Zebo; JJ Hanrahan, C Sheridan; J Cronin, D Casey, BJ Botha; D Ryan, B Holland – captain; Dave O’Callaghan, T O’Donnell, CJ Stander.

Replacements: G Slattery, D Kilcoyne, J Ryan, Donncha O’Callaghan, S Dougall, D Williams, D Hurley, A Conway.

ZEBRE: G Palazzani; D Odiete, K Ratuvou, R Quartaroli, D Berryman; R Trevisan, B Leonard; A De Marchi, T D’Apice, D Chistolini; M van Vuren, G Biagi; F Cristiano, A Van Schalkwyk – captain, S Vunisa.

Replacements: L Giovanchelli, L Leibson, D Ryan, E Caffini, N Cattina, A Chillon, G Bisegni, G Venditti.


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