Anthony Foley will send his Munster players out against Newport Gwent Dragons today hoping last Saturday’s late meltdown was not an omen for the last throes of the regular season.
Munster have a job to do at Musgrave Park if they are to secure a Guinness Pro12 home semi-final next weekend and that means staying focused and securing a bonus-point victory over the in-form Welsh region.
Even the maximum five points this afternoon may not be enough to give them a Thomond Park date that history tells us is essential to reaching finals. The permutations are outlined elsewhere on these pages but having been minutes from their objective in Belfast last weekend only to leave with a draw, Munster’s head coach has spent the intervening days stressing the importance of his squad seeing the task through to the bitter end.
“It’s about making sure we stay on job,” Foley said. “It’s about making sure we turn up this week and we don’t get taken up with everybody talking about semi-final stuff. We’ve got our last league game and we have to turn up and make sure that we keep a run of performances going and making sure we get that done on the front foot.
“It’s trying to get a healthy squad and trying to make sure we get a very competitive squad and make sure there’s competition for places going into the knockout stages.”
The healthy squad part of that checklist was dealt a blow yesterday when Foley was forced to name a side missing a trio of Irish internationals in captain Peter O’Mahony, fellow back-rower Tommy O’Donnell and wing Simon Zebo, as well as hooker Duncan Casey.
O’Donnell was ruled out for between six and eight weeks after a specialist confirmed he had torn a hamstring last Saturday early into the 23-23 draw with Ulster.
There is hope, though, that Zebo (back spasms) and Casey (mild back pain) will be able to take a full part in training next week ahead of the semis. So too O’Mahony, who picked up a “knock” in training on Thursday, although the province were unable to be more specific than that when asked to elaborate yesterday.
Denis Hurley captains the side in his absence with Foley moving Donnacha Ryan out of the second row and into the No.6 jersey, bringing Billy Holland in at lock alongside Paul O’Connell.
Paddy Butler replaces O’Donnell at openside flanker while the front row sees John Ryan and BJ Botha in off the bench for Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer. Casey’s place on the bench is taken by Niall Scannell.
In the backs, Ronan O’Mahony comes in for Zebo, whom he replaced last week, while today’s game will see fly-half Ian Keatley win his 100th cap for the province.
Munster are on a roll, their only defeat in the last nine rounds of the Pro12 coming in March at Ospreys and their record both at home in Cork and against the Dragons is impressive. Once seen as something of a bogey ground away from Thomond, Musgrave Park has been a fortress for the last nine games, their last defeat dating back to January 2013 while the Men of Gwent have been beaten in seven of their last eight encounters with Munster.
The Dragons are already assured of ninth place but this has been a season of significance for the Welsh region. For one, their big brother neighbours Cardiff Blues will finish 10th while they also reached the European Challenge Cup semi-finals.
Their wins in 2015 have also included the completion of a league double over Leinster and there is no danger of that being underestimated by Munster today. Foley’s side are rightly favourites but there are no guarantees of a procession towards a home semi-final.
F Jones; K Earls, A Smith, D Hurley – captain, R O’Mahony; I Keatley, C Murray; J Ryan, E Guinazu, BJ Botha; B Holland, P O’Connell; D Ryan, P Butler, CJ Stander.
N Scannell, D Kilcoyne, S Archer, S Dougall, J O’Donoghue, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, A Conway
Newport Gwent Dragons:
J Tovey; T Prydie, T Morgan, J Dixon, H Amos; D Jones, J Evans; B Stankovich, H Gustafson, B Harris; C Hill, R Landman captain; N Crosswell, N Cudd, T Faletau.
R Buckley, P Price, L Fairbrother, M Screech, J Benjamin, R Rees, A Hewitt, G R Jones.
Ben Whitehouse (Wales).
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