ROB PENNEY HAS already declared that Munster will have to deliver the best performance in their history to defeat Toulon in Marseilles this Sunday.
Penney goes into this weekend’s Heineken Cup semi-final clash without forwards Stephen Archer and Peter O’Mahony while Donnacha Ryan may miss out on selection and BJ Botha is carrying a niggle. Apart from the JJ Hanrahan groin injury that has Conor Murray on stand-by to deputise for Ian Keatley, the Munster backline is in good shape.
Penney said, following his team’s 32-23 win over Connacht on Saturday, that he and many of the senior squad had sat down together to watch Toulon squeeze the life out of Leinster in their quarter final. The New Zealander will have noted some of the wasted kicks and sloppy kick chases that gave Toulon comfortable ball and platforms to attack.
The European Cup champions are not expected to make many changes to their starting XV but Bryan Habana will be hoping to shoehorn his way into the back three of Delon Armitage, Drew Mitchell and David Smith. Penney may be tempted to go for pace and chase in his own back three. The try-scoring performance of Andrew Conway, at the weekend, led to suggestions, on RTE, that Penney could start Simon Zebo at fullback this weekend.
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Conway’s performance on Saturday gave Munster fans another glimpse of his undoubted talent. Speaking post-match, Penney revealed Munster pursued the winger, who played four seasons with Leinster, as he has ‘something that we thought we were lacking’. Penney also noted how the 22-year-old is ‘plagued by little injury issues’ but is happy to have another weapon, in his backline arsenal, fit and firing.
He said, “We saw him really flourishing on the end of a line in which he got lots of ball… his work-rate was terrific, he was chasing kicks vigorously. Those sort of things are the selfless tasks that you really need in your group.
He was up to the task today and they try he got, well, he has a gift with his feet. His in and out, and to be able to maintain his pace for that try. He has shown glimpses of what he is really capable of.”
Keith Earls looks to have the 14 jersey locked in and Conway could retain his place on the left wing to allow Zebo to drop to fullback. The Cork native started in the 15 jersey in February league encounters with Cardiff and Scarlets.
It is more likely, however, that Felix Jones will be again asked to take the fullback slot. It may be seen by many as the safe option but, for Penney, it is also the best option.
Jones is enjoying his best run of games since his horrific knee injury in 2011 and his confidence, running at pace and making swift directional changes, has been apparent since mid October onwards. He is committed in aerial battles, has a handy knack of beating defenders and his defence [and defensive awareness] is second to none in the Munster team. His tactical awareness and comfort in playing to the parameters laid out by the Munster coaches, and analysts, is oft-remarked on as one of the reasons he is so vital to his team’s cause.
He scored a fine try in the home, pool stage, win over Edinburgh and had one of his best games of the season — like many of his teammates — in the quarter final masterclass against Toulouse.
Zebo should be asked to line up on the left wing again. If Habana gets the nod as Toulon’s 14, it should make for a fascinating duel, while the front eights are heaving relentlessly into each other. If Penney were to indulge in a risk, it may be to include both Conway and Gerhard van den Heever on his bench.
How do you think Penney should select in his back three?