Three games to go in the shake-up for the Guinness PRO14 play-offs and still all to play for as far as Munster and Cardiff Blues are concerned, going into what promises to be an intriguing clash in Cork this evening (7.35pm).
With Munster bidding to overhaul Glasgow Warriors’ three-point lead at the top of Conference A and book a home semi-final berth that comes with finishing the regular season in first place and Cardiff arriving at Musgrave Park tonight with an eye on pipping Connacht to the third and final play-off place, there is plenty on the line for both teams.
These are two sides with plenty of cheer in their camps, Munster with a European semi-final place secured in Edinburgh last Saturday, while Cardiff’s is derived from winning five of their last six games and a Six Nations Grand Slam for Wales secured against the Irish three weeks ago by their full-back Gareth Anscombe.
Those are highs that need managing as carefully as they were planned for as players return to the more routine business of a league campaign but Munster head coach Johann van Graan is confident his squad and management have done everything possible to ensure there is no drop-off from the levels of commitment on show in the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final last Saturday.
“I think the most important thing is to stick to your habits and stick to your DNA,” van Graan said. “The fact that we’re giving the same message as a group of coaches, as a leadership group from the players and as a whole squad, you treat each opponent the same and each with respect. That’s what gets you through a season.
“I said at the beginning of the season that we are going to go up and down through a season. If you only celebrate the victories and then when you lose then everything is wrong, you’re not going to get very far.
So look at what happened in the weekend, take out of the game what went well, look at the things that didn’t and try and fix and improve them, and move forward.
Cardiff Blues have won their last three PRO14 games and have had the luxury of a weekend off when the European quarter-finals took a big physical toll on Munster. Also at the forefront of the province’s thinking is the 37-13 hammering they took at the Arms Park in round four back last September.
“The good thing is we know Cardiff smashed us the last time that they played against us, so from our point of view we’ve got no illusions as to what will await us on Friday evening,” van Graan said. “They will come out and fire off everything they’ve got.
“They also just had a bye week so they will definitely be a lot fresher than us, so we have got to recover as quickly as we can, not only physically but mentally. That’s the beauty of our squad, we’ve got to back our squad and just make sure that we go and follow our process for the week.”
The Munster boss has rotated his squad for the province’s final home game in Cork this season with six changes to the team that started last Saturday’s Murrayfield victory.
Mike Haley has recovered from the sickness that forced his late withdrawal in Edinburgh to return at full-back while Tyler Bleyendaal, who steered his side home following Joey Carbery’s first-half hamstring problems, starts at fly-half.
The other changes come in the pack with Kevin O’Byrne in at hooker, Billy Holland starting at lock, and Chris Cloete and Arno Botha coming into the back row to replace Jack O’Donoghue and CJ Stander at openside and No.8 respectively.
The outside backs replacement role goes to a fit-again Sammy Arnold who is set to make his first appearance since suffering a leg injury at Connacht on January 5.
Cardiff head coach John Mulvihill, relishing a contest on Munster’s artificial surface, makes three changes to the starting line-up which blasted Scarlets 41-17 last time out on March 22.
Grand Slam winner Josh Navidi suffered a season-ending elbow dislocation in that win and his replacement that day, Shane Lewis-Hughes, starts at blindside flanker while former Munster No.8 Nick Williams has also been ruled out, with Josh Turnbull switched from lock as cover and Seb Davies coming into the side in the second row. The other change is at tighthead prop where Dillon Lewis, a replacement against Ireland in Cardiff on March 16, replaces the injured Dmitri Arhip.
M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell, K Earls; T Bleyendaal, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, K O’Byrne, J Ryan; J Kleyn, B Holland; P O’Mahony - captain, C Cloete, A Botha.
N Scannell, J Loughman, S Archer, T Beirne, CJ Stander, A Mathewson, JJ Hanrahan, S Arnold.
G Anscombe; O Lane, R Lee-Lo, W Halaholo, A Summerhill; J Evans, T Williams; R Gill, K Dacey - captain, D Lewis; S Davies, R Thornton; S Lewis-Hughes, O Robinson, J Turnbull.
E Lewis, B Thyer, K Assiratti, G Earle, J Botham, L Williams, G Smith, M Morgan.
Marius Mitrea (Italy).