McGahan makes the big calls

GOOD enough for the Springboks when they beat the Lions and ran away with the Tri-Nations… now not good enough for Munster.

That’s how the South African centre Jean de Villiers finds himself today having been relegated to the replacement bench for tonight’s vital Heineken Cup clash with Perpignan at Thomond Park. It’s a huge call by coach Tony McGahan and most will wonder why he felt it necessary to make it now. On the other hand, he can hardly be accused of gambling given that reverting Keith Earls from the wing to centre as partner for Lifeimi Mafi is hardly a case of risk taking. Nor will many eyebrows be raised at the preference for Denis Hurley over Ian Dowling on the left wing.

There’s a certain degree of merit in both selections. And in the long run, the enforced absence of hooker Jerry Flannery with an achilles problem could exercise a greater influence in the outcome of what appears to be a really tight game.

Flannery’s near flawless line-out throwing combined with his undoubted footballing quality and physical intensity could be badly missed whereas Earls is a natural second centre and nowhere nearly as home on the wing. On the same token, though, Mafi is due a big game and with a man of De Villiers’s calibre on the bench, the incentive to produce is certainly there.

Perpignan for their part must do without regular out-half Nicolas Laharrague and former Leicester Tiger number eight Henry Tuilagi while long serving Argentine forward Rimas Alvarez Kairelis settles for a place on the bench.

It may seem a little early in the season to be talking about ‘moments of truth’ but where Munster’s challenge for the Heineken Cup is concerned, it’s very difficult to avoid that feeling about this game. Lose this one and you wonder if there’s any way back.

They have already failed in Northampton and even though that day’s bonus point and another picked up in the home win over Treviso have put them on top of Pool 1, the status is somewhat flattering. By the end of next week, Northampton will in all likelihood have taken a minimum of nine points from the Italians and gone to the top of the group.

We all know by now how virtually unbeatable the Catalans are at their own Stade Aime Giral but the corollary to that is how poor they have been on the road, most notably when allowing themselves to be caught on the hop in the opening day of the tournament to Treviso. Since then, though, they have disposed of the Saints and will have their campaign very much back on track if they join Leicester as the only team to win a European tie at Thomond Park.

Tony McGahan admitted before last week’s Magners League game against the Ospreys: “I wouldn’t really consider any part of our game so far this season to be at any level of acceptance.” And what he witnessed in Swansea did nothing to dissuade him of that view.

Ospreys, shorn of up to a dozen of their leading players, would almost certainly still have won had Ronan O’Gara not managed only two successful shots at goal out of seven attempts. A far better ratio from the Heineken Cup’s runaway top scorer is essential tonight. Munster were also without a few key men and Paul O’Connell, Denis Leamy and David Wallace are back to lend their undoubted quality and experience to the cause.

That they and their forward colleagues are facing a massive battle up front goes without saying. Everything about this Perpignan team oozes menace and no small amount of class. Skipper Nicolas Mas and coach Bernard Goutta have made 52 and 37 appearances respectively in the Heineken Cup, all with Perpignan, with Mas regarded as one of the most destructive scrummaging props in the game. Goutta masterminded last year’s French Championship triumph and they are just two off the pace with a game in hand.

They have surrounded themselves with some key personnel. The popular perception of Perpignan is that they are forward-orientated and kick and chase. However, they boast a world-class centre partnership in David Marty and Maxime Mermoz, not to mention a prolific goal kicking expert in full-back Jerome Porical.

Mas is the only big name in the pack although hooker Guilhem Guirado and second-row Olivier Olibeau have played for France and Australian-born prop Perry Freshwater has a string of English caps to his credit. As a unit, though, they don’t come a whole lot better, a point graphically demonstrated by their current eminent status in French rugby. Their scrum and maul is an awesome sight once they click into overdrive.

They have, of course, been to Thomond Park before. They lost 5-13 in 1998/’99 and by 21-30 in ‘02/’03 and by 10-19 at Lansdowne Road in the quarter-final in 2006.

It will be interesting to see how Munster’s unproven newcomer Wian du Preez and the gallant but ageing John Hayes will cope with Mas and Freshwater. Whereas McGahan will bring in Tony Buckley or Darragh Hurley only if he has to, Goutta won’t hesitate to call up the fresh legs of Marius Tincu and Tongan Kisi.

On this occasion more than ever, Munster desperately need their ‘16th man’. The Thomond Park factor could prove decisive at the end of what will be a Herculean battle.


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