WORD FROM GLOUCESTER is that Ian Keatley was goal-kicking like a dream at Kingsholm during Munster’s captains’ run on Friday.
The Dubliner will need to replicate that accuracy in front of Gloucester’s famous Shed End if they are to return from England with a win that would all but secure a place in the knock-out stages. Keatley has been given the nod at out-half over JJ Hanrahan and a return to his early season form should quell the doubters. For now.
There have been three injury comebacks for Munster that are verging on miraculous. Conor Murray, Damien Varley and Simon Zebo have all returned earlier than scheduled with the scrum-half giving Rob Penney a fitness boost. Duncan Williams, therefore, remains on the bench and Munster fans breathe easier.
Duncan Casey was ready and willing as a deputy at hooker over the festive period and his lineout throwing was impressive. Varley offers a great ball-carrying threat and is a demon — much in the Rory Best mould — at the breakdown.
The ongoing injury problems of Leinster import Andrew Conway have not become a gaping issues for Penney as Johne Murphy’s rise to first team rugby has seen him cover a number of positions. Murphy starts on the left wing with Zebo, who will also cover fullback Felix Jones, in reserve.
Penney’s other big call, with Donnacha Ryan out injured, is to give Dave Foley the start at lock beside Paul O’Connell. Former Munster flanker David Wallace describes Foley as a scrapper and the coach may have made a horses for courses selection as Gloucester will be up for the fight.
Kingsholm was an intimidating place to visit in years gone by but they have struggled there in the Premiership [losing heavily to Saracens last week] and were beaten 16-10 there by Edinburgh in the round four fixtures. Star out-half Freddie Burns is off to Leicester Tigers next season and flanker Akapusi Qera has bolted, mid-season, to Toulouse. Qera’s departure has proved a boost for Gloucester’s Irish winger Shane Monahan. He was added as an additional player during the week and gets the start on the left flank today.
Nigel Davies has a relatively young side at his disposal, with some hardy veterans, but there is a lack of star power or personalities to make Munster quake. Billy Twelvetrees is the best of the current crop but his lack of attacking ingenuity sums up the home side’s backline.
Tonga’s Sila Puafisi and young England flanker Matt Kvesic are the shining lights in the Gloucester pack but their names do not stack up to the heavy-hitters of Munster — Varley, Paul O’Connell, Tommy O’Donnell, Peter O’Mahony and James Coughlan.
Munster shocked the English side 33-6 to win a memorable pool game, dubbed the Miracle Match, in 2003. The result has forever linked the two sides but the victors from that day are continuing to mix it with Europe’s best while Gloucester are struggling to hang on. Given the varying fortunes of the two sides, a one-point home win would constitute a miracle for those loyal fans of the Shed End.
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