Munster can defy the odds at Scotstoun
Glasgow Warriors have won a club record eight matches in succession but tonight they face the ultimate big match exponents
Munster strike runner Simon Zebo will be seeing more of Glasgow Warriors’ Sean Maitland and Peter Murchie in tonight’s RaboDirect Pro12 semi-final at Scotstoun. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Sentiment is rarely afforded more than standing room in professional sport, a place in the wings, far removed from centre stage. Munster won’t have considered for one second the impending changeover in personnel at the end of the season, either from the management or playing side, because to do so would require acknowledging the possibility of defeat.
Last Monday morning the group teased out the disappointment and frustration of last weekend’s defeat to a callow Ulster side at Thomond Park, parked it, and spent the rest of the week fine-tuning a game plan to beat the in-form Glasgow Warriors in tonight’s RaboDirect Pro12 semi-final.
The priority for the visitors will be to declutter their patterns, replacing lateral movement with a more direct, abrasive progress that commits defenders rather than allows opponents to drift and numerically ambush the last ball-carrier.
When Munster have struggled this season, and to be fair that’s been rarely, it’s been down to questionable game management, undermined by that touchline to touchline orientation.
Putting width on the game is fine, if it’s to create and exploit space, and to do that Munster require key decision-makers like Conor Murray, Ian Keatley and Casey Laulala not to have to elbow their way to the front to receive the ball.
When they get the balance right in mixing the carrying between forwards and backs, varying the focus of attack and squeezing opponents’ pressure points, they have produced excellent attacking rugby. That’s the goal for tonight in Glasgow. Keith Earls and Simon Zebo are match-winning strike runners but they’ve got to receive possession in the right areas with a little wriggle room.
To achieve that Munster are going to have to establish a sturdy platform up front that will require set-piece precision, intelligence and aggression at the breakdown, and a line defensive speed that enables them to meet Glasgow ball-carriers on or behind the gain-line.
Captain Damien Varley and lineout tactician Paul O’Connell will need to be in tune, while the return of tighthead prop BJ Botha following the birth of a baby daughter is a fillip at scrum time. The interpretation of Italian referee Marius Mitrea in this facet will be important but equally so the team adhering to his promptings.
Munster coach Rob Penney has made three changes to the team that lost to Ulster, recalling scrumhalf Murray, the team’s player of the year, an accolade thoroughly deserved; Earls, who starts for the first time since the Toulon defeat, and the outstanding CJ Stander at blindside flanker.
Munster have had 23 different try-scorers in the league this season, with Stander, Zebo and Conway leading the way with four apiece, a mark they share with the number of penalty tries awarded to the team. On three occasions they did not cross the opposition’s line.
Coach Gregor Townsend confirmed he was dropped from the match squad and outhalf Duncan Weir from the bench.
Peter Murchie is named at fullback, with Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour returning on the wings in place of Sean Lamont and the versatile Niko Matawalu, the team’s top try-scorer with seven. Scottish international Mark Bennett returns at outside centre, with young Finn Russell, the club’s most prolific points scorer this season, chosen at outhalf.
There are five changes in the pack, Dougie Hall, Jon Welsh, the Pro12’s young player of the year, Jonny Gray, Rob Harley and Josh Strauss, all reintroduced. Glasgow’s form has been outstanding, including a record eight-game winning streak.
One of those wins was an impressive 22-5 victory over Munster at Thomond Park, although the province might point out that they took home the points when the teams met at tonight’s venue earlier.
Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend pointed out: “Munster challenge you in a number of areas and will come here with the experience of being involved in these big occasions. They also beat us here in October so we’re well aware of the task we face.”
His team is choc-full of confidence playing in front of their own supporters for the first time in a play-off match. Everything points to a Glasgow victory but their opponents are often at their most dangerous in adversity. Munster will turn up, and at their belligerent best, they rarely blink first.