THE FIRST OF five cup ties kick off for Munster at Thomond Park tomorrow afternoon and we are close to bonus point or bust territory.
Gloucester and Munster are old foes — the English side were on the receiving end in the 2003 Miracle Match — so will be aware of the physical effort needed to claim the spoils. Gloucester needed a late try from Jonny May to see off 14-man Perpignan last weekend but have oddly decided to make a raft of changes for the visit to Thomond.
Following the perplexing defeat to Edinburgh last weekend, Munster captain Peter O’Mahony declared his team’s five remaining matches as must win encounters. Here are the key battles that should decide this first of those ties.
Keith Earls v Jonny May
Earls has settled back into his role as a try-scoring winger and demonstrated his worth to Munster by claiming Ian Keatley’s crossfield kick and jinking past Rob Kearney to score against Leinster. The Moyross native had no chance against Tim Visser in his forlorn chase to prevent a try but question marks may arise about his positioning for the late try.
May had a happier time of it last weekend as he dived over for a crucial, late score against Perpignan. The England international is one of only three players to survive Nigel Davies’ squad rotation and offers Gloucester their most dangerous attacking option.
Verdict: Expect Earls to have the final say, out wide, here as Munster are sure to draw in defenders through phase building and straight-up running.
Peter O’Mahony v Ben Morgan
The Munster captain comes back into the team at No. 8 as James Coughlan drops to the bench. O’Mahony could yet find himself at the back of the pack long-term and will be asked, by coach Rob Penney, to provide multiple ball carries.
Gloucester’s eight made a name for himself with Scarlets before a successful transition to Premiership and Heineken Cup rugby. He earned his Test debut in February 2012 and tore a crumpling Ireland to shreds in Twickenham a month later.
Donnacha Ryan (left) and Ben Morgan clash at Twickenham in 2012. INPHO/Billy Stickland
A delayed comeback from injury saw him lose out to Jamie Heaslip and Toby Faletau when it came to Lions selection but he is the Gloucester player to be wary of tomorrow.
Verdict: There is no separating the two young back-rows in terms of graft and ability to O’Mahony should win the day by virtue of a rabid Munster display.
Dave Kilcoyne v Rupert Harden
The entire Gloucester pack has changed from the side that beat Perpignan 27 — 22. Davies is taking a serious gamble if he expects eight rested bodies to match up to a charged up Munster front eight. An intriguing confrontation will take place between two props. One is living up to his promise while the other is hoping to prove the adage that the front row is fertile ground for late bloomers.
‘Killer’ Kilcoyne demonstrated in last year’s competition that he has the talent to compete at the top level and he should prove an able international deputy for Cian Healy. Australian-born Rupert Harden was signed by Gloucester from Newcastle Falcons but his playing CV also includes a loan spell at Tynedale. 2011-12 was his peak season, which included a cap for England Saxons, but injury and poor form has seen him fall behind Shaun Knight for a starting role.
Verdict: Kilcoyne has the talent and technique to get the better of his direct opponent and will benefit from having BJ Botha back at tight head.
Munster Rugby: Felix Jones; Keith Earls, Casey Laulala, James Downey, Johne Murphy; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Damien Varley, BJ Botha, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell, Donnacha Ryan, Niall Ronan, Peter O’Mahony (c)
Replacements: Mike Sherry, James Cronin, Stephen Archer, James Coughlan, CJ Stander, Cathal Sheridan, JJ Hanrahan, Denis Hurley.
Gloucester Rugby: Martyn Thomas; Charlie Sharples, Mike Tindall, Ryan Mills, Jonny May; Jonny Bentley, Dan Robson; Dan Murphy, Darren Dawiduik, Rupert Harden, Lua Lokotui, Will James (c), Matt Cox, Akapusi Qera, Ben Morgan
Replacements: Daniel George, James Gibbons, Yann Thomas, James Hudson, Gareth Evans, Tavis Knoyle, Freddie Burns, Rob Cook.