Munster face a second top-of-the-table clash in as many weeks tonight when they defend their RaboDirect Pro12 lead against second-placed Ospreys at Thomond Park (7:15pm).
In the Pro12’s equivalent of winner-stays-on, Munster unseated leaders Glasgow at Scotstoun last weekend and now face a similar challenge on their home turf from the in-form Welsh region, the only non-Irish team to have taken a league victory from Thomond Park since 2006.
Ospreys have won twice in Limerick in their last four regular seasons visits, winning 15-11 in April 2010 and 17-13 in October 2011, while last March they earned a 13-13 draw.
That game fell midway through the Six Nations and there is a similar feel to this encounter ahead of the autumn internationals, which have denied Munster seven key players and Ospreys no less than 13 Wales call-ups.
Munster, though, can call on forwards Donncha O’Callaghan and James Coughlan for this evening’s game. O’Callaghan spent a week in the Irish training camp as cover for injured team-mate Paul O’Connell while Coughlan, one of national head coach Joe Schmidt’s original 34 choices, has been released to gain some extra game time following two appearances off the bench for his province.
Coughlan is again among the replacements with Munster boss Rob Penney making eight changes to the side that defeated Glasgow 13-6, CJ Stander retaining his place at No 8 with Dave O’Callaghan coming in at blindside flanker in place of Peter O’Mahony.
In the second row, O’Callaghan will partner Dave Foley, who swaps places on the bench with Billy Holland, and it is all change in the front row, where Dave Kilcoyne and BJ Botha start either side of tonight’s captain Damien Varley.
Ian Keatley returns at out-half as JJ Hanrahan drops to the bench following his try-scoring, man-of-the-match performance in Glasgow while Duncan Williams gets the nod over Cathal Sheridan at scrum-half.
There are changes among the outside backs, too, with Felix Jones returning from an ankle injury at full-back and Johne Murphy moving aside to the wing with Andrew Conway not considered due to bruised ribs.
Ivan Dineen continues at inside centre with James Downey ruled out with a back spasm, while Cian Bohane is on the bench.
If last Friday’s hard-fought victory over Glasgow was a war of attrition, Penney is expecting another one against Ospreys tonight as Munster aim to sign off before a two-week break with a fourth win from their last five, dating back to the beating of Leinster on October 5.
“We have an opportunity to finish this block with a home game and something to prove given we have struggled against Ospreys, particularly last year, so we have a good opportunity to put on a good performance.
“They are a robust side and Glasgow are very robust too, but you would say that Glasgow tend to use the ball a bit more but Ospreys are a side that know the game that suits them and they play it very well and they are hard to break down.”
Ospreys, who overpowered Dragons last weekend 40-17 with Wales star Justin Tipuric to the fore, will once again prove stubborn opposition, even if they are missing the Lions which make their pack so formidable, a point acknowledged by coach Steve Tandy.
“This is without doubt a huge game for us. With 13 of our squad on international duty, the team will have a different dynamic,” Tandy said. “While they are looking strong, we are also going into the game off the back of our victory against the Dragons last week. We will go to Thomond Park knowing how strong we can be and hopefully we will do ourselves justice.”
MUNSTER: F Jones; J Murphy, C Laulala, I Dineen, R O’Mahony; I Keatley, D Williams; D Kilcoyne, D Varley (capt), BJ Botha; Donncha O’Callaghan, D Foley; Dave O’Callaghan, S Dougall, CJ Stander.
Replacements: D Casey, J Cronin, J Ryan, B Holland, J Coughlan, C Sheridan, JJ Hanrahan, C Bohane.
OSPREYS: R Fussell; A Natoga, J Spratt (capt), A Bishop, B John; M Morgan, T Tibaldi; M Thomas, S Baldwin, J Rees; L Peers, J King; J Bearman, S Lewis, M Allen.
Replacements: M Dyer, N Smith, D Suter, R Hughes, A Ellis, T Habberfield, S Davies, H Dirksen.
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