O’Driscoll to face Llanelli

MICK O’DRISCOLL has put family tragedy behind him to answer Munster’s call in today’s Celtic League fixture against Llanelli at Stradey Park (5.30pm).

It was left up to O’Driscoll himself, if he wanted to play in Wales, following the tragic death of his first cousin Conrad O’Sullivan earlier this week. Accordingly, coach Declan Kidney left a vacancy in the side.

But the Irish international, following consultations with his family, decided to make the journey and has been included in the back row for this crucial fixture.

Better known as a second row forward, O’Driscoll did play in the back row for Perpignan over the last couple of seasons before his return to Munster. He takes over from the injured Denis Leamy, alongside captain Anthony Foley and Triple Crown hero David Wallace, with the unsettled Stephen Keogh left out of the squad.

A week before the Heineken Cup quarter final against O’Driscoll’s old club, Munster coach Declan Kidney has clearly issued a message of intent. Munster will start at Stradey Park with a full deck of Irish forward internationals, six of whom were involved in Ireland’s sensational win in Twickenham last week.

In addition, Irish star half-backs Ronan O’Gara and Peter Stringer, as well as John Kelly, add to the international mix of this team. Waiting in the wings is Christian Cullen, while Mike Mullins has also been included in the squad of 22 as Kidney awaits the experiment of playing Tomas O’Leary at outside centre.

Captain Anthony Foley made it clear that this is a must-win game for his side. “We were disappointed in our last two outings in the Celtic League, and we desperately need a win to keep our challenge on track,” Foley said.

Foley is looking forward to that challenge: “With the lads away, it has been a long seven weeks; we lost to Glasgow and Ulster.

Ultimately, our aim is to win the Heineken Cup, but the Celtic League is highly important to us as well. We have been toppled off the top of the table, and we have to keep winning now to have a chance of getting back to where we were.

“This game is of double importance to us in terms of where we stand in the Heineken Cup next season, but also because we need a boost in advance of next week’s game with Perpignan. It’s not the ideal build-up, but everyone is totally focused on this week alone.”

Similarly, it is a huge task for Llanelli, who are 14 points adrift of second-placed Munster, albeit with three games in hand.

Simon Easterby, colleague to eight of the Munster team in Twickenham, has promised there will be no rosy welcome and no sentiment.

“It’s going to be a bit difficult in that this match comes so soon after a fantastic weekend in London, but I have a job to do and that’s to ensure that we keep ourselves on track for a title challenge,” said the Llanelli captain.

Scarlets supporters have been starved of quality rugby at Stradey Park over the last eight weeks. The last top class game at the venue was the Heineken Cup clash with Toulouse on January 21, and nobody in this part of Wales is happy with that.

But Easterby believes Munster will bring out the crowds. “There is a bit of buzz around the club again,” said Easterby, “a lot of interest, and that should help us against Munster.”

“We’re in with a chance of moving up the table, in with a chance of winning the League, but we have to cram in the fixtures and that might take its toll in the end. The important game right now is Munster; it would be a major boost if we win, and it wouldn’t help them at all.

“I’m sure I will have a drink with the Munster lads after the game, but for now my focus is on helping Llanelli beat them. We lost narrowly in Cork when we last played them, and that defeat hurt us a lot. Since then, we have beaten Wasps and Bath in the Powergen Cup, but our major problem has been a lack of consistency. We need to get that part of our game right if we’re going to seriously challenge for the title,” he admitted.

LLANELLI: B. Davies, D. James, M. Watkins, R. King, T. Selley, M. Hercus, C. Stuart-Smith, P. John, M. Rees, J. Davies, I. Afeaki, A. Jones, S. Easterby (captain), D. Jones, G. Thomas.

Replacements: I. Thomas, C. Hawkins, V. Cooper, G. Quinnell, L. Davies, C. Thomas, D. Daniel.

MUNSTER: S. Payne, J. Kelly, T. O’Leary, T. Halstead, I. Dowling, R. O’Gara, P. Stringer, M. Horan, J. Flannery, J. Hayes, D. O’Callaghan, P. O’Connell, M. O’Driscoll, A. Foley, D. Wallace.

Replacements: D. Fogarty, F. Pucciariello, T. Hogan, J. O’Sullivan, J. Manning, M. Mullins, C. Cullen.

Referee: R Dickson (Scotland).

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