The second Guinness Pro 12 playoff will be in Thomond Park where Munster will look to provide further evidence of their progression with a final appearance at the Aviva Stadium. Standing in their way is the Ospreys, a team whose season has faltered but have a superb opportunity to correct the regular league reversals this season.
Can Munster learn from ERC semi-final loss failings?
I think this is the key point that Munster fans will look to this weekend. Munster have secured the top spot in the league with an emphatic win over Connacht in the final day of the regular season and Ulster beating Leinster at the Kingspan Stadium. A potential fixture against Scarlets predicted weeks ago is now the Ospreys and with no love lost between both sides, this will be a brutally physical encounter.
Whatever happens now this season, this is a year which will be remembered for profound loss with the untimely passing of Anthony Foley and the emergence from the grieve and loss to produce game winning performances since then. Foley shouldered most of the responsibility for the side’s decline last season; protecting young players in the squad from media criticism. You must remember where Munster were this time last season; incredibly fortunate to qualify for the ERC with some nervy end of season wins.
Munster management and squad have stepped up massively. The return of Peter O’Mahoney from injury was almost like a new signing. His leadership, work rate at the breakdown and causing havoc to opposition in set piece was to the fore. The front five has improved significantly this season. Ryan / Archer, Scannell / Marshall, Kilcoyne / Cronin have provided a steady set piece. The second row has excelled this season. Ryan and assured Holland have provided quality line out possession and assisted by the likes of O’Mahoney, Kleyn, O’Shea, Deysel at various points of the season. The back row options speak for themselves. Stander has had an epic season; multiple accolades for the Castleconnell resident and with the emergence of O’Donnell, O’Donoghue, Oliver with the experience of Deysel and O’Mahoney — the back row has possessed mobility but also physicality.
The half-back situation last season was a difficult one for Munster in particular the ten jersey. Keatley endured a season to forget, confidence sapping as no other viable options were available to rescue Keatley. Holland came and then unfortunately had to retire. The position lacked competition but thankfully Tyler Bleyendaal returned to the squad and has cemented his position at fly-half. The New Zealander has consistently mentioned his gratitude to Anthony Foley for persevering with him after an injury plagued start to his provincial careers. Some pundits and fans were questioning the need to keep him on the books but Foley stood firm and Bleyendaal has emerged with a strong season. His game management has improved as the season has progressed. His ability to launch line runners is his greatest strength.
It will be interesting to see if Rassie Erasmus starts Conor Murray at scrum-half. The player is superb but his shoulder injury sustained on international duty during the RBS 6 Nations tournament ruined his club campaign; his presence was missed against Saracens in the ERC semi-final but has made a cameo appearance against Connacht to try and prove his match fitness. This weekend will indicate how fit Murray is and Warren Gatland and Lions management will be very interested spectators.
The most significant loan signing this season for Munster was the arrival of unheralded South African Jaco Taute; a player with experience and cover for the injured Francis Saili. Taute has taken his opportunity superbly with several eye-catching performances. Taute is a Munster fans favorite and his loan extension was gratefully received. How Ulster fans would have reacted after that news considering Ruan Pienaars’ departure would be interesting? Taute has provided leadership, defensive structures and Scannell has grown into the twelve position as a result.
The wings have seen the emergence of several ex-Munster academy players this season. Alex Wooton, Ronan O’Mahony and Darren Sweetnam have stepped up to the mark. Sweetnam is a player of great potential; his all round game and skills were evident throughout his rookie season. His ability to create a try from nothing to the fore. O’Mahony (out of the fixture due to injury) led the side in tries. Wooton’s explosive pace has created numerous line breaks in recent games. Great talent to complement established players such as Keith Earls, Andrew Conway and Simon Zebo. Ian Keatley has contributed and produced a good season with several keynote performances this season.
The team and fans are again a cohesive unit in unison; something you could not say last season. With far improved attendances at Thomond Park and Irish Independent Park, Munster gate revenues have increased. Game day atmosphere has stepped up in intensity. Debt remains an issue but this season has being a marked up improvement for the province.
Ospreys will look at the ERC semi-final loss to Saracens as a source of optimism. Munster failed to perform on the day. Their limited game plan was easily counteracted by a Saracens who exposed game management issues to put the tie out of sight ten minutes into the second half. Saracens absorbed Munster’s early punches and ran out convincing winners. Munster were reduced to one out ball carries, mediocre kicking game as a result of Saracens defensive line speed and breakdown work. The ability to control emotions was not evident in certain quarters; the game plan needs to be more varied particularly when facing excellent opposition like this weekend.
Ospreys will not fear Munster
Munster hold no fear for Ospreys. The regular season games were two completely different games. Munster were dominant in their home fixture but Ospreys will rue not putting Munster to the sword in the opening period of their home loss. Yes, Munster did win both fixtures but the last fixture showed Ospreys how to expose Munster.
Ospreys started the game with superb tempo and line speed. Their clear out work in the first quarter of this contest was excellent and Munster were pinned back. This physicality and dominance subsided as the half wore on and Munster were clinical in their possession keeping themselves in touch and stealing a victory.
Ospreys under Steve Tandy started the season with extreme promise and all was going well for the side until the ERC Challenge Cup quarter final to Stade Francais. The loss seem to deflate the squad and some performances were below par. The loss in Italy to Treviso was a low point but Ospreys did arrest the slide with a convincing win over Ulster until they faced Scarlets and were comprehensively beaten. Two weeks to reflect and review to produce a performance at Thomond Park.
What did go so horribly wrong for Ospreys? Discipline was a key issue during the game. Webb’s yellow card allowed Scarlets the platform to lead and once done produce a very expansive display exposing Ospreys on the fringes and defensive breakdowns resulting in try concessions.
Playoffs. It is a clean slate for the side and there should not be pressure for the Welsh region. Pundits will write off the Ospreys at their peril but there will be notes ahead of this fixture stating as much (certain Irish Indo journos). Will Alyn Wyn Jones feature during this contest? It is a massive boost for the side if he even featured on the bench. Leadership, work rate and line-out efficiency.
The Ospreys pack this season is young, energetic and extremely mobile. Baldwin, Ardron, Underhill and Baker have provided consistent performance along with the mercurial talent of Tipuric wrecking havoc at the breakdown.
Webb and Biggar at half-back will provide Ospreys with assured game management. Webb at nine is an exceptional talent. His ability to find space in the fringes to the fore. Biggar’s penalty kicking and ability to suck defenses out of position to launch the likes of Beck, Matavesi again eye catching. Sam Davies / Dan Evan provide kicking ability from deep but also excellent line break capability from full back where the elusive Giles has provided several keynote game changing moments on the wing.
If Ospreys can get a foothold in this contest, then they will feel that they have the sufficient quality out wide to threaten a Munster defense whose structures have vastly improved this term. The key decision is on Jones in the lock position. Bradley Davies and Scott Ardron are a good partnership but Jones is leader central. Interesting lineup beckons.
I think Ospreys have a serious chance to upset Munster this weekend. A team with nothing to lose, the pressure should be firmly on the hosts to produce a performance. There are fitness question marks over Munster’s first choice half-back partnership. Williams at scrum-half has provided solid support but Webb will fancy his chances to assert a game changing / match winning performance from nine. The battle in the pack is where Ospreys need to front up. If they can quell the hosts early salvos, Munster may become extremely one dimensional. The learnings of the ERC semi-final or not will then be answered in quick fashion. Ospreys were a disallowed injury time try away from beating Munster in the playoffs two seasons ago. Munster have being warned. Playoff rugby. Anything can happen. The Thomond Park venue will provide solace for Munster but it has to happen on the pitch. If Murray plays from the start, advantage Munster but if not then Ospreys have more than enough to secure the road trip. A game which will be brutal and physical; would not be surprised if a Lions bound player is struck down with a season-ending injury here. Tempo and platform will be key early doors.