Home comforts to help Munster clip Ospreys’ wings
Returning Lions boost Welsh club’s chances but home side should triumph in semi-final
Secondrow Donnacha Ryan is among the players leaving Munster in the summer. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Munster v Ospreys, Thomond Park (6.15pm, live on TG4, Sky Sports)
The case for a Munster victory appears watertight, documentation that includes history and current form.
The Irish province finished top of the league standings, losing just one – to the Scarlets at home in February – of their last 17 matches in the Guinness Pro12.
Conor Murray is fit again and starts in a team that is close to their strongest lineup, notwithstanding any argument about selection preference in one or two positions.
They are a well-coached, well-drilled side, choc-full of talent, who have produced a consistent quality of performance – the Saracens game a slight aberration, albeit when confronted by the reigning and subsequently two-time European champions – and are comfortable and confident in the way they play.
The familiar surroundings of Thomond Park and the passionate advocacy of their supporters is another significant factor. As is the fact that since the playoffs were introduced in 2010, no team has won an away semi-final.
Munster’s timing in offering an update on player movements provided an interesting sidebar to the match. Jaco Taute is staying, having agreed a two-year contract. Francis Saili is leaving, reportedly for Harlequins in London after two seasons, 38-appearances and eight tries in a red shirt.
Saili starts this evening with Taute on the bench, the latter having been curtailed a little in terms of gametime recently by injury. Saili has been unfortunate in that particular respect this season; there is no doubting his ability when fully primed as he reinforced with his late cameo in the Saracens game.
The New Zealander, along with crowd favourite Donnacha Ryan, who will swap Nenagh for Paris in the summer, will play their final matches at the Limerick venue.
The 33-year-old Ryan has made 165 appearances for Munster since making his debut against Ospreys in September 2004, a 13-year-career that included Heineken Cup and Magners League success, not to mention 47 Ireland caps.
Munster confirmed that prop Peter McCabe and secondrow John Madigan are also set to depart at the end of the season, while centre Cian Bohane and Australian secondrow Mark Chisholm have both confirmed they are to retire from professional rugby.
Ian Keatley, starting on the bench alongside Taute, penned a new two-year deal that will keep the 30-year-old Dubliner at the club until June 2019. Munster have won four of their last five fixtures against the Ospreys and boast a 2-1 winning record against the Welsh club in semi-finals.
The Ospreys arrive in Limerick having lost four of their last five fixtures in the tournament. However, the Welsh club did beat Munster in Cork last season and know what it’s like to prevail in Thomond Park (2014).
They are bolstered by the return of their outstanding secondrow and captain, Alun-Wyn Jones after a long layoff through injury, and the news that outhalf Dan Biggar, another hugely important player for the visitors, is fit. Their ability make it through the majority of the match could be important.
The Ospreys will not die wondering in Limerick this evening. They’ve got a pack that can win ball and in young Keelan Giles on the right wing, a finisher with lovely balance, footwork and top-end pace.
A few column inches have been devoted to the battle at scrumhalf between Lions rivals Murray and Rhys Webb, but their ability to positively influence the match is dependent on others to some extent.
Munster will need to minimise the influence of another Lions tourist, the excellent Ospreys flanker Justin Tipuric, a scourge at the breakdown and an athletic presence in the wider channels.
Ospreys head coach Steve Tandy acknowledged the quality of their hosts and the difficulty of the task his side faces but added: “Our record there is pretty decent, we’ve got boys in the team who know what it takes to win there, and we can draw on that experience, but it’s like I said, what happened last week, last month, last year, whatever, it won’t mean a thing at 6.15pm on Saturday night.
“It’s good that we can welcome back one or two senior players who can provide different kinds of leadership in the build-up and once the whistle goes, but we aren’t getting ahead of ourselves.”
Munster led by senior players Ryan, Murray, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Tyler Bleyendaal, Simon Zebo and Keith Earls possess all the component parts up front and behind the scrum to win. The Ospreys will not give it up lightly but Munster should continue their march to the Aviva Stadium.
MUNSTER: S Zebo; A Conway, F Saili, R Scannell, K Earls; T Bleyendaal, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, J Ryan; D Ryan, B Holland; P O’Mahony (capt), T O’Donnell, CJ Stander. Replacements: R Marshall, J Cronin, S Archer, J Deysel, J O’Donoghue, D Williams, I Keatley, J Taute.
OSPREYS: D Evans; K Giles, K Fonotia, A Beck, T Habberfield; D Biggar, R Webb; N Smith, S Baldwin, R Jones; A W Jones (capt), B Davies; S Underhill, J Tipuric, J King. Replacements: S Otten, P James, D Suter, L Ashley, O Cracknell, B Leonard, S Davies, J Matavesi.
Referee: L Pearce (England)