Munster call on fans for tough Ospreys game
Injury-riddled province under pressure to get result against sometimes bitter rivals
Munster coach Anthony Foley with Paul O’Connell at a training session at University of Limerick. Photograph: Inpho
Had Ian Keatley landed his last-ditch penalty to earn Munster victory over Edinburgh here in the first round, this would have been one of two summit meetings between teams with 100 per cent records.
As it is, this is probably the game of the weekend between two outfits who have won seven of the 13 league titles in its various guises to date.
Instead, an injury-hit Munster find themselves in fifth and somewhat under pressure to obtain a win over their sometimes bitter Welsh rivals, all the more so with next Saturday’s trip to the Aviva and a searching European Champions Cup campaign looming.
Accordingly, Anthony Foley’s plea to the absent or subdued Red Army was understandable. Supposed attendances of 13,500 and 12,500 looked more like sub-10,000 crowds for their previous home game against Edinburgh and Zebre, ensuring an underwhelming sense of occasion for both games.
Friday night kick-offs may have been a factor, for they do not facilitate those travelling from Cork and elsewhere in the province. The Ospreys – with whom Munster have had a feisty rivalry over the years – are flying high atop the table after three wins and 16 tries, with just two conceded.
It could be argued the fixtures have fallen favourably for the Ospreys thus far but then again the same could be said of Munster. In any event, the Ospreys retain a dozen of the side that hit Edinburgh for 60 last week, with centre Andrew Bishop, winger Eli Walker and flanker Joe Bearman returning to the side and on a straight form line through Edinburgh and Treviso, they would be 50 or 20 point favourites.
Sidelined players Of course, the bookies don’t contrive their odds that crudely, yet in the absence of around nine senior squad players who are currently sidelined it’s surprising to see such an unexceptional Munster line-up as six-point favourites.
After an extended summer’s hurling in which Munster counties have had protracted runs, nor does a replayed hurling final amid a hatload of rival sporting attractions on television help with regard to Foley’s appeal.
The Ospreys will not be intimidated by Thomond Park. They have won two and drawn one of their last half-dozen League visits here.
A little unnervingly too given this fixture has tended to need strong officiating, with Nigel Owens and Leighton Hodges on Rugby Championship duty, this game will be refereed by the Welsh official Neil Hennessy.
The personnel may come and go but as Foley said this week the Ospreys still make a virtue of spoiling opposition set-pieces and there don’t tend to be too many completed scrums with them.
In any event, as Foley concedes, solid set-pieces and an accurate kicking game will be prerequisites.
Unsurprisingly, he and his think tank have opted to recall Donncha O’Callaghan alongside old warriors BJ Botha and Paul O’Connell in their tight five, as well as David Kilcoyne for his first start of the season, with CJ Stander and Seán Dougall returning to the backrow.
Only Conor Murray, who captains the side, and Ivan Dineen are retained in the starting back line, as Keatley returns, while Gerhard van den Heever has recovered from a knee injury to make his first appearance of the season on the left wing in place of leading scorer Simon Zebo.
Munster need a big, accurate kicking game from Keatley and another unnerving little pointer is that whereas he has had his wobbles, Dan Biggar’s ratio is close on 90 per cent.
“We have been leaving scores behind us,” lamented Foley, “but at least we are creating chances. It would be far more worrying if we weren’t creating opportunities.” They’ll need to start taking them here.