Tony McGahan is banking on youthful enthusiasm to help carry defending champions Munster through their RaboDirect Pro12 semi-final at Ospreys in Swansea tonight (7.35pm).
In a contest between two sides deep in transition, Munster’s director of coaching has, despite losing talismanic captain Paul O’Connell to injury, resisted temptation to restore veteran fly-half Ronan O’Gara to his starting line-up at the Liberty Stadium, despite his recovery from a leg injury sustained last month.
McGahan has, though, kept Ireland’s record points scorer in reserve for this eighth meeting between the sides in the last two seasons, with Ian Keatley starting at fly-half and last Saturday’s starting 10, Scott Deasy, left out of the matchday squad.
The other changes to the side which beat Ulster last weekend see Donncha O’Callaghan replace the injured O’Connell and a fit-again Keith Earls replace Ivan Dineen at outside centre, Dineen moving to the bench where he will also be joined by loose head prop Dave Kilcoyne, preferred to Marcus Horan as back-up for Wian du Preez.
Emphasising the accent on Munster’s next generation, Peter O’Mahony reprises the captaincy to cap a week which saw him named both Munster’s and IRUPA’s Young Player of the Year.
There will be plenty of experience in the Munster pack with O’Callaghan partnering Mick O’Driscoll, although Mike Sherry continues at hooker with Damien Varley injured. Both coaches agree it could well be the set-piece that separates the sides.
“They’ve always been enjoyable, tight struggles between two good sides up against it, home or away, and it just shows the closeness of the competition, especially once you get to finals time,” McGahan said.
“The Ospreys are a very strong, set-piece dominated side and they’ve probably had the edge on us in that department in our previous meetings. So, if it does come down to possibly a scrum penalty for the deciding points, it points towards field position and the opportunity to gather more points. So really for us it’s about being in at the set-piece and being physical around the breakdown defensively against what is a very strong side.”
Ospreys beat Munster home and away this season, and finished four points ahead of them to claim a home semi-final, finishing with a five-match winning streak that began with a 23-22 win at Leinster.
Although missing Ulster-bound Tommy Bowe (haematoma), Ospreys still boast an exciting backline with Wales centre in waiting Ashley Beck at inside centre and wing Shane Williams making potentially his final home appearance before retirement. Yet head coach Steve Tandy sees his scrum anchored by Lions tighthead Adam Jones as the game-winning factor.
“Our set-piece has been a positive,” Tandy said. “It’s something we’ve put our stamp on and it’s won us a lot of games in the past couple of months and it will be no different on Friday.”
OSPREYS: R Fussell; H Dirksen, A Bishop, A Beck, S Williams; D Biggar, K Fotuali’i; P James, R Hibbard, A Jones; A-W Jones – captain, I Evans; R Jones, J Tipuric, J Bearman. Replacements: S Baldwin, R Bevington, A Jarvis, J King, T Smith, R Webb, M Morgan, T Isaacs.
MUNSTER: F Jones; J Murphy, K Earls, L Mafi, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; W du Preez, M Sherry, BJ Botha; Donncha O’Callaghan, M O’Driscoll; D Ryan, T O’Donnell, P O’Mahony – captain. Replacements: D Fogarty, D Kilcoyne, S Archer, Dave O’Callaghan, P Butler, T O’Leary, R O’Gara, I Dineen.
Referee: Alain Rolland (IRFU).
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