European Champions Cup Pool 1
Munster v Sale
Tomorrow: Thomond Park, 3.15pm
TV: Sky Sports 1
Munster head coach Anthony Foley and captain Peter O’Mahony have signalled all week their determination to make amends for last week’s poor display against Saracens when they take on Sale Sharks in the European Champions Cup “dead rubber” at Thomond Park tomorrow.
In keeping with that ambition, Foley has kept changes to a minimum with all but three of the side that flopped last week starting again as the province strives to avoid a fourth successive defeat in the competition.
However, his opposite number Steve Diamond has lived up to his mid-week promise to concentrate on making the knock-out stages of the English Premiership and essentially forget about the Champions Cup for this season.
Diamond has retained only four of the side that led Clermont Auvergne with less than 10 minutes to play at the AJ Bell Stadium a week ago.
In contrast, even the modest Munster rejig is partly enforced. Felix Jones failed to come through a late fitness test on a bruised knee so Simon Zebo moves to full-back with Ronan O’Mahony coming in on the left wing for his first start in the European Cup.
CJ Stander faces four-to-six-week rehab on an ankle injury so skipper Peter O’Mahony moves from the blindside flank to number eight, allowing David O’Callaghan to make another European debut at number six.
Keith Earls, who came in as a second-half substitute last week for his first outing after a two-month injury lay-off, replaces Pat Howard in the centre, while Robin Copeland, back again after injury and Ivan Dineen have been called up to the bench.
A reported 21,000 people have bought tickets for the game although it remains to be seen how many actually turn up given the outcome is of no significance.
Those who make it to Thomond Park will be disappointed the enigmatic but richly-talented Sale out-half Danny Cipriani is one of many notable absentees from the visitors’ match squad.
Cipriani, the only Sale player called up this week to the England 6 Nations squad, stays at home along with other high-profile names such as former Munster centre Sam Tuitupou, England’s Mark Cueto and Scottish internationals Chris Cusiter and Nathan Hines.
The best-known player in tomorrow’s squad is Australian-born full-back Luke McLean, who has represented Italy on 60 occasions.
Having done better than most expected in the European Cup “pool of death” (they only lost by a last-ditch Ian Keatley drop-goal against Munster), Steve Diamond now switches his attention to domestic manners.
“We have lost at home to three sides — Saracens in the last minute, Munster in the last minute and now in the last 10 minutes to Clermont,” said Diamond.
“We’ve come a long way as a side in this competition. It’s good that we are playing against these kinds of sides who are, week in, week out, probably better than us and we will learn from it.
"We are pushing in the top six of the Premiership and the goal for us now is to qualify for this top European competition again. If you qualify, you want a group which has big sides like Clermont, Munster and Saracens. For us it’s a joy to play in it.”
After tomorrow’s game, Munster have a two-week respite, much of which will be spent on warm weather training in Lanzarote, before resuming their challenge for the Guinness Pro 12 tie against Cardiff Blues on February 14.
Before that, however, Peter O’Mahony stresses the need “to go out and show the people that we let down last weekend, people who travelled, people at home, friends, family, everyone, that our passion hasn’t changed and our belief in the jersey hasn’t changed.”
“We need to put in a performance this weekend and in the next few weeks in the Guinness Pro 12. Those performances are non-negotiable.”
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