PAUL O’CONNELL might have a sore hip, but the Munster skipper, and now Lions captain, will be fit to lead the holders into battle against Leinster in the Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park on Saturday week.
For the moment, however, the Munster squad aren’t looking beyond tonight’s vital Magners League clash with Llanelli Scarlets .
Accordingly, the men in red will go for broke, led by Mick O’Driscoll who has again come in to replace O’Connell in the team, and as captain.
In a week when Munster’s amazing dominance in European rugby was recognised by the selection of eight players for the Lions tour to South Africa this summer, their team manager, Shaun Payne, was keen to discuss more pressing issues.
As if to emphasise how seriously Munster take the possibility of sweeping the boards this season, seven of the Lions representatives, including wild card selections Keith Earls and Alan Quinlan, are included in the team to take on a Scarlets team somewhat short of experience.
Llanelli’s Lions representatives, Stephen Jones and Matthew Rees, will actually have to wait a turn to get on the pitch, but there is no doubt Jones will get his chance to go head-to-head with Ronan O’Gara, ahead of their duel in South Africa to nail down a place in the Test side.
The one step at a time approach by Munster this season has worked very well. Yesterday, Payne insisted that nothing had changed.
He said: “It’s a great honour to have eight players in the Lions squad; it’s a good reflection on where the team is and how the boys are playing, but at the same time we’re only looking forward to what we need to do as a team; we have so much to play for we can’t allow ourselves be distracted by things outside our control.
“We have ample opportunity to get a lot out of this season, but equal opportunity to come out of the season with absolutely nothing. These last four or five games are going to define what kind of a season we have to look back on. We have the opportunity to make this an epic season but, equally, it could be a poor one because we don’t want to let ourselves down in the final few games; It’s a catch 22 situation in a sense.”
Payne wants Munster focused on the immediate.
“There is no way we can afford to treat tonight’s match lightly; we wouldn’t anyway, but we have to be single-minded in our approach.”
Payne has huge respect for Llanelli: “We have a good record against them, but this is a time of the season when everyone is trying to improve position in the league; we’re looking for a title, while Llanelli will be using their last few games as an opportunity to develop. I was impressed with them last week against Ospreys, so we will treat them with total respect.
“It’s a very dangerous game for us in more ways than one; right from the start, we said we wanted to be able to wrap up the Magners League as soon as possible, but it hasn’t happened. We now have Cardiff away and finish off against Ospreys, but tonight it’s all about playing Llanelli and trying to get over that one. It’s all that counts right now.”
O’Gara’s rival Jones has struggled with a hamstring injury but is expected to make an appearance despite the fact that Rhys Priestland will start.
Scarlets coach Nigel Davies hopes his side can do themselves justice. “I was pleased with many things in last week’s tie; some young guys stood up to the challenge. It’s a learning process for some of our squad, and Munster will provide us with a huge challenge from that point of view. It’s all good experience,” he said.
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