Pro14 Rainbow Cup: Munster v Cardiff Blues
Kick-off: 7.35pm, Friday. Venue: Thomond Park. On TV: Live on eir Sport.
When Munster kicked off the Rainbow Cup by beating Leinster while Cardiff were losing 36-14 to the Ospreys, the prospect of this being a win-or-bust fourth-round tie in the pursuit of a place in the North v South final in Treviso on June 19th would have seemed remote.
This was all the more true after Munster obtained a handsome bonus-point win over Ulster. But not only have Cardiff recorded one-point wins over the Dragons and Scarlets, Munster failed to justify 18-point favouritism against Connacht last time out.
The selections reflect the ambitions of both sides. Munster make seven changes, restoring Mike Haley, Rory Scannell, Joey Carbery, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer and Fineen Wycherley, with Gavin Coombes, recovered from his illness, named among the replacements alongside Peter O'Mahony.
CJ Stander captains the side on his Thomond Park farewell, as it is for James Cronin and Tommy O'Donnell. The pity is that the Government, having rejected Leinster's proposals for an antigen-tested, socially-distanced crowd of 2,000 at the RDS last month, means not even a modest attendance including the players' families and friends can be there.
The Rainbow Cup was not a trophy any Munster player ever dreamed of winning but as O’Donnell stresses, it would at least represent silverware for the first time in a decade and so remove a monkey from their collective backs.
“I remember listening on the radio back in 2001/02 when Munster were playing in a Celtic Cup final,” he recalls of a win over Neath in the Principality Stadium in 2003 which ended a run of three losing finals in the previous three seasons.
“Cups and trophies evolve the whole time, but a cup or a trophy is still very significant to a club and it’s still very significant to the players who win that cup because there’s definitely a certain amount of blood, sweat and tears that goes into winning it.”
Finalists in the inaugural European Cup, Cardiff have been major under-achievers, albeit they won the Challenge Cup three seasons ago. But they have shown distinct signs of a revival since Dai Young returned in February after nine years at Wasps.
During his first eight years in charge at Cardiff they reached the Heineken Cup semi-finals and two Celtic League finals, and lifted the Anglo-Welsh Cup.
Tomos Williams and Jarrod Evans provide real running threats from halfback, and with the promising Ben Thomas adding his playmaking skills at 12, there was a good shape and width to their game as they brought their potent outside backs into play against the Scarlets.
Having secured their bonus point by the 45th minute to lead 26-9 they were ultimately indebted to a late penalty by Evans for their deserved win. The favourable weather forecast should suit them.
Cardiff have lost their last four against Munster and are chasing a historic first win in Thomond Park.
The return of James Botham after eight weeks out with a calf injury is one of two changes. "We're not too far away from what most people would perceive as our best 23 from the boys that are available," said Young. "We're not holding back for this one."
MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Damian de Allende, Rory Scannell, Shane Daly; Joey Carbery, Craig Casey; James Cronin, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Fineen Wycherley; Jack O'Donoghue, Tommy O'Donnell, CJ Stander (capt).
Replacements: Diarmuid Barron , Jeremy Loughman, Keynan Knox, Gavin Coombes, Peter O'Mahony, Nick McCarthy, Jack Crowley, Jack O'Sullivan.
CARDIFF BLUES: Hallam Amos; Jason Harries, Willis Halaholo, Ben Thomas, Josh Adams; Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Corey Domachowski, Kristian Dacey, Dillon Lewis; Seb Davies, Cory Hill; Josh Turnbull (capt), James Botham, James Ratti.
Replacements: Liam Belcher, Rhys Carré, Dmitri Arhip, Rory Thornton, Olly Robinson, Lloyd Williams, Harri Millard, Matthew Morgan.
Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU).
Forecast: Munster to win.