Hard to look past Munster again

ANYONE questioning the hunger of Munster’s returning Grand Slam heroes for further silverware could rest easy on leaving Thomond Park last Saturday night after another comprehensive win over great rivals Leinster. Suffice to say that Munster coach Tony McGahan must have slept more soundly in his bed afterwards than his Leinster counterpart Michael Cheika.

Cheika’s day started badly when he sat down to watch how Heineken Cup quarter-final opponents Harlequins would cope with the exacting demands of travelling to play fellow quarter-finalists Bath at the Recreation Grounds. Their highly impressive 19-3 win confirmed that Leinster face a serious challenge at The Stoop on Sunday.

Munster, on the other hand, with their grasp firmly on the Magners League trophy, can look forward with relish to the demands of the next few weeks and are in rude health for the visit of a star-studded if somewhat inconsistent Ospreys to Limerick at the weekend.

With so many double Grand Slam and Six Nations championship-winning campaigners in the red of Wales from 2005 and 2008 on board, the Ospreys have flattered to deceive in Europe. Year after year they just seem to come up short, with last season’s capitulation against Saracens at Vicarage Road a case in point. Some day they will produce.

Last year, having comprehensively defeated Alan Gaffney’s charges in the EDF Energy Cup only weeks earlier, the Welsh made the cardinal error of underestimating the task they faced. There was even an element of showboating from James Hook at one stage when he attempted to catch a kick with his hands behind his back. I doubt he will try that on Sunday.

The trouble with the Ospreys is that the sum of their impressive talent (remember 13 of their side started in the win over England at Twickenham in 2008) has never produced on the big stage in Europe when playing for their club. Contrast that with Munster in the Heineken Cup, when they invariably punch above their weight.

Just look at their backline alone. Currently the regular back three of Tommy Bowe, Lee Byrne and Shane Williams could form the same partnership for the Lions in the test series in South Africa while James Hook, Mike Phillips and even the injured Gavin Henson are all in contention for that trip.

Is it any wonder that Ian McGeechan choose to delay the announcement of the Lions squad until after this game? Up front, the second-row battle between Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan against Alun Wyn Jones and Ian Gough resumes from where they left off in the Millennium Stadium only a few weeks ago.

The dominance of the Munster pairing in that encounter laid the foundations for a famous Irish win. Once again, they will be required to set the ground rules on Sunday.

Munster, with the exception of the wake-up call they received over the Christmas period with losses to Connacht and Ulster, have been a model of consistency this season. Only for those two shock defeats, the Magners League title would already be achieved. It now looks as if those losses merely delayed the process.

THE Ospreys, despite lying in third place in the Magners table, have never produced the type of quality performance that the make up of their squad suggests they are capable of. Injury has played a part this season with Henson now joining fellow internationals Ian Evans, Duncan Jones and Nikki Walker on the treatment table, while a doubt still exists over the availability of Jonathan Thomas and Byrne for Sunday. They have not been helped either by indecision in the board room after the sacking of coach Lyn Jones at the end of last season, which has led to assistant coaches Sean Holley and Jonathan Humphries appointed as interim choices until the arrival of Scott Johnson from the USA. That type of instability does nothing for a side. Just look at the effect that Alex Ferguson’s premature retirement announcement had on Manchester United a few seasons ago.

Contrast the Ospreys situation with that of Munster when Declan Kidney was appointed to the role of Irish national coach. Munster’s administrative wheel wasted no time in interviewing a collection of impressive names but decided to promote from within, with the elevation of McGahan to the hotseat. Regardless of what happens for the rest of the season, it proved an inspired choice, with the young Australian making a huge impact in his first year at the helm. Kidney was always going to be a difficult act to follow but McGahan could well even surpass the achievements of his predecessor by landing a Magners League and Heineken Cup double. At this stage it presents a very viable target for a highly-motivated squad.

The most intriguing contest on Sunday will be played out between the respective back rows. The Ospreys have quality to choose from in Welsh captain Ryan Jones, Jonathan Thomas if fit and the All Black duo of Marty Holah and Filo Tiatia. McGahan also has decisions to make in pruning three from Alan Quinlan, Niall Ronan (who were both excellent against Leinster), David Wallace and Denis Leamy. Their role will be crucial, especially in dealing with the unique demands of referee Wayne Barnes at the breakdown. He has a tendency to give the tackled player no time to place the ball and on the evidence of his recent encounters with Munster and Ireland requires careful game management. Keeping him on side is a prerequisite to winning this one.

Leinster travel to London knowing that another potential crack at Munster in the unique surroundings of Croke Park awaits as a tantalising reward should their southern rivals dispose of the Ospreys. With in excess of 80,000 anticipated for that encounter all in ERC headquarters in Dublin are hoping for another all-Ireland clash. It would be the icing on the cake for what has already been a seismic year for Irish rugby.

Leinster have their work cut out. They have not performed to the maximum of their ability since their demolition of Wasps at the RDS last October. Harlequins are riding high at the moment and Dean Richards knows exactly what is required to win a Heineken Cup from his days at Leicester and has added steel to the flamboyant nature that always accompanied a Harlequins side. Under his tutelage, Nick Easter, Danny Care, Ugo Moyne and David Strettle have all graduated to international honours while former Cork Con prop Mike Ross has made massive strides and is on the verge of winning a first cap for Ireland. Currently second in the Guinness Premiership, they have won nine of their last 10 games.

The key man for them is recent All Black signing Nick Evans at out half. He was superb in their amazing back-to-back victories over Stade Francais in December. For Leinster to have any chance his opposite number Felipe Contepomi needs to park his latest nightmare against Munster and extract the best from the talents of Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald. O’Driscoll’s availability is central to Leinster’s cause as he is in inspirational form at present and has a calming influence on Contepomi. Leinster will have to show a marked improvement on recent form to win this one.


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