No consolation for Munster as they are left with only their pride to play for

After inconsistent campaign, the province need to revive the Thomond Park factor

If nothing else, this will be a significant test of Munster's professionalism and of the extent of their supporters' loyalty. Such has been their consistency of performance and especially results, that not since the 1997-98 season have Munster played a dead rubber per se in European rugby.

At least when Munster made their only other exit at the pool stages – in the last 17 campaigns – when beaten in Toulon in their penultimate game, they had the consolation of playing for a place in the Challenge Cup when scoring four tries in the last quarter in their otherwise anti-climactic pool game against London Irish at Thomond Park.


Typical of Anthony Foley’s luck there isn’t even that modicum of a consolation tomorrow afternoon, when the sense of anti-climax at this traditional hotbed of European rugby threatens to be all pervasive.

All Munster and Sale will have to play for will be pride, as such is the wisdom (or otherwise) of the organisers of the new tournament in tearing up the previous ranking system that past results matter not a whit.


This contributed to the predicament Munster now find themselves in, and underlines how important it is for them to regroup and finish as strongly as possible in the Guinness Pro12. But that’s for another day.

Tomorrow's relatively meaningless affair is at least notable for welcoming back Keith Earls for his first start of the season after two appearances off the bench following his injury lay-off, news which will also be welcomed by Joe Schmidt although Earls would have to go some to prove his worth as an Irish outside centre for the Six Nations given that Jared Payne, Rob Henshaw and Luke Fitzgerald are all ahead of him in the pecking order.


A little more disconcertingly however, with Ireland’s opening defence of their Six Nations title at the Stadio Olimpico two weeks’ hence,

Conor Murray

is still sidelined with no medical update on his absence and his “neck” injury. Hence, Duncan Williams continues at scrum- half alongside Ian Keatley, while JJ Hanrahan remains on the bench as Denis Hurley partners Earls.

With Pat Howard dropping to the bench, Foley has made two other changes, as both Felix Jones (bruised knee) and CJ Stander (ankle) have also been ruled out through injury. Hence, Ronan O'Mahony makes his first start in Europe after his debut last weekend off the bench and Dave O'Callaghan comes in to the back row, as Peter O'Mahony moves to number eight and Simon Zebo moves to full-back.

The bench sees the inclusion of the returning Robin Copeland from shoulder injury and Ivan Dineen who is in line to make his first European appearance if called upon.


This will be a far cry from Sale’s previous two visits here, notably the January 2006 pool finale when Munster avenged an opening defeat in Manchester to win 31-9 and Paul O’Connell, with a little help from Donnacha O’Callaghan, famously marched Sebastian Chabal backwards in one of the Thomond Park’s most seminal and seismic moments.

Sale may be winless and bottom of the group, but they have been very competitive, only once conceding an attacking bonus point, and that was away to Clermont when the home side scored two tries in the last 10 minutes at the Stade Pierre Antoine.

14 changes

As if to underline the point that this is a dead rubber, Bryan Redpath and the Sale coaching staff have made 14 changes to the starting line-up which fronted up impressively at home to Clermont last week, retaining only their captain David Seymour. Of course, this means that Sale will be able to swing from the hop with several fringe players having the opportunity to state their case.

Similarly though, while they will be hurting badly, leadership figures such as O’Mahony and O’Connell, for whom this could be a European farewell to Thomond Park if he decides to retire after the World Cup, will demand some pride in Munster’s performance.

Earls may also have a galvanising effect, and having lost for only the third time in Europe at their Limerick citadel to Clermont, and having lost some of their Euro aura last week, Munster need to begin reviving the Thomond factor.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times