Game of inches likely as battered Pro12 rivals square off
Munster, with departing O’Connell on board, may have edge on Scottish opponents
Face off: Munster captain Denis Hurley and Glasgow Warriors’ captain Josh Strauss ahead of today’s Guinness Pro12 final in Kingspan Stadium, Belfast. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
It wasn’t quite meant to be like this, for Ulster desperately wanted to showcase their team as well as their impressively redeveloped home ground. But home fans can only look on wistfully as their conquerors Glasgow play Munster in the seasonal finale at the neutral Kingspan Stadium.
Nonetheless, it will be fascinating. It will be emotional, given yer man in the second row is bidding a final farewell to Munster; and in keeping with the Pro12’s final weeks, it could well be nail-bitingly close.
The two protagonists also arrive a little battered and bruised. Alas, Munster yesterday confirmed that their playmaking linchpin, Conor Murray, has been sidelined for six weeks due to the medial knee ligament injury he picked up last week. Worse, despite his assurances to the contrary, Peter O’Mahony’s hip flexor has ruled out the Munster captain.
Already missing the hamstrung Tommy O’Donnell, a seemingly depowered Munster pack sees Donnacha Ryan shift to blindside, with Billy Holland coming into the second row alongside Paul O’Connell who plays his last game for Munster.
Glasgow’s win over Ulster was also costly, prompting Gregor Townsend to make six changes. Canadian winger DTH van der Merwe and hooker Dougie Hall both make farewell appearances, replacing Niko Matawalu and Fraser Brown respectively.
Gordon Reid replaces the injured Ryan Grant at loose- head. Fijian second-row Leone Nakarawa comes in for Al Kellock, and in a rejigged back row Josh Strauss captains the side and moves to number eight, with Rob Harley and Ryan Wilson replacing Adam Ashe and Chris Fusaro.
The Pro12 run-in has arguably hit new heights in the quality of fare between the leading sides, in the absence of them competing in Europe (not a coincidence probably). This final should be helped by the presence of Nigel Owens, who always allows games to breath rather than suffocating them, but unhelpfully rain is forecast to arrive during the game.
These two traded away wins last season, when Glasgow won a home semi-final by a point, and home wins this season.
Only a point separated them atop the table after 22 rounds. Their tries for and against (Munster 68-31, Glasgow 63-33) are almost identical.
The bookies make it a two- point game, and it would be surprising if there was more than a score between them, all the more so with Nigel Owens in charge.
These are two hungry sides. Munster won their last final in 2011 and have been in two European and two League semi-finals since. Glasgow were beaten in the final last year, after semi-final defeats in each of the previous two seasons, all against Leinster. They are also seeking to become the first Scottish side to lift a trophy since their national team won their last Five Nations in 1999.
Were Murray and O’Mahony available, you’d have no problem envisaging a Munster win. Murray’s direction of the close- in traffic and kicking game are pivotal, and their absence could well be game- changers.
Yet Ian Keatley is well capable of putting last week’s mishaps off the ‘tee’ behind him.
Yes you write off Munster’s chances at your peril, all the more so with O’Connell in it.