Munster braced for the backlash

MUNSTER’S belief that they face a backlash tonight at Firhill is very much on the money if the comments of Glasgow Warriors’ captain Ally Kellock and coach Sean Lineen prove to be well founded.

The Warriors team has come under a lot of fire after losing two of its opening three Magners League matches and things came to a head after their first home defeat in nine games at the hands of Connacht last week. Even though Kellock is currently on the injured list, he laid it on the line yesterday, insisting: “We have the team and the squad to win these games so there are no excuses from us,” and going on to claim: “There’s no crisis after three matches.”

Then he came out fighting.

“There’s huge disappointment that we’ve lost at Firhill,” declared Kellock, also the captain of Scotland.

“It doesn’t matter who beat us, we don’t want to lose games there. I won’t take anything away from Connacht or patronise them but they’ve not won an away game for two years so that makes it all the harder to take.

“It means there must be a bit more honesty from players and coaches. We are demanding higher standards from everyone.”

New Zealander Lineen was in a similarly aggressive frame of mind and clearly sees the visit of Munster as the ideal means of getting his team back on the tracks. However, he never makes any secret of his admiration for tonight’s visitors and says Munster “never play a bad game so I’m looking forward to an awesome night”.

Lineen has made three changes from the side that lost 19-17 to Connacht. Duncan Weir replaces Ruaridh Jackson at out-half, Argentine flyer Federic Aranburu fills in on the left wing for Hefin O’Hare, required by Scotland for the Commonwealth Games Sevens, while Moray Low swaps the tighthead prop spot with Ed Kalman.

Whereas Glasgow have only five points from their first three outings, Munster top the table with 13 after beating Aironi, Edinburgh and Ospreys. Although Munster have won only one of their last five visits to Firhill, they seem able to cope with a string of injuries to key players and still find a way of fielding a very formidable looking side.

A strained back has ruled John Hayes out of tonight’s game but Tony Buckley will start with Darragh Hurley making a very useful alternative on the bench. Damien Varley has stepped in seamlessly at hooker and does so now instead of long-term injury victim Denis Fogarty. Even then, Sean Henry, who had a fine game for the A team last week, is preferred to Mike Sherry on the bench.

The game also opens the way for David Wallace’s first appearance of the season at number seven and he forms a really useful back-row with Denis Leamy, who has shaken off the effects of a minor knock to his ribs and captains tonight’s side, and the in-form Niall Ronan. Last week’s injuries to Felix Jones and Ian Dowling necessitated changes behind the scrum but it is encouraging to see the Ronan O’Gara-Tomás O’Leary axis restored at half-back and Lifeimi Mafi to the centre to partner hard-running newcomer Sam Tuitupou. Another close season arrival, Johne Murphy, has been figuring in the centre but now moves to the more familiar left-wing berth where he enjoyed many good days with Leicester Tigers.

With the Heineken Cup opener against London Irish just two weeks away, these matches assume ever great importance for a number of players seeking to establish themselves as first-team regulars. With Paul O’Connell ruled out until Christmas, Donnacha Ryan seems to have installed himself as favourite to partner Donncha O’Callaghan in the second row, although Mick O’Driscoll may have something to say on that count.

The formation of the back row will also come under close scrutiny with Alan Quinlan – rested tonight after making his 200th appearance for the province last week – and Niall Ronan battling for a starting place.

Manager Shaun Payne expressed confidence during the week that hooker Jerry Flannery would be available for the visit to London Irish but is unlikely to displace the impressive Damien Varley from the outset.

Tonight’s back division could well be retained en bloc at the Madeskji Stadium, especially as Keith Earls has little chance of recovering from his latest injury and the likes of Felix Jones and Ian Dowling are among those ruled out for some time.

Given the Warriors’ need for a reassuring home victory, they are certain to present stubborn opposition but may well have to wait a little longer. As Payne emphasised this week: “There is a new buzz in this Munster team,” and while there were some apparent shortcomings in each of the three games so far, they were all won and that, in itself, has instilled a welcome degree of self-belief in the squad.”

It is unlikely to be diluted by events at Firhill tonight.

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