IT’S A FIXTURE that inevitably draws up evocative memories of Heineken Cups past, but the midday glare on Thomond Park this afternoon is unlikely to be caught by a knife-edge contest.
John Kelly celebrates scoring Munster’s fourth try in 2003. Source: ©INPHO
January 18 2003 will forever remain a cornerstone of Munster lore. The day they needed four tries and a 27-point win over powerful English opponents, and relentlessly battered their way to a 33-6 win over awestruck Gloucester.
Today [KO 1pm, Virgin Media 1 and BT Sport 2], may well bring about a similar scoreline, but it won’t come down to miracles or magic. Just a Munster team in increasingly good shape.
We ought to have known it was coming last weekend. All concerns around Johann van Graan’s side after losses to Glasgow, Cardiff and Leinster fizzled away once they flicked that switch that puts them into European mode.
In Exeter, they ratcheted the intensity through the roof to meet the continent’s form team head on. The result was a draw, but the location of it left the Chiefs’ hopes badly dented while Munster took 10-10 and looked forward to back-to-back home matches in the tournament.
Of course, the two-points-gained only keep them in the driving seat if they are consolidated, potential points must still be converted to tangible steps out of Pool 2 and towards the quarter-finals.
Johann van Graan. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO
Gloucester come to Limerick with a win over French champions Castres under their belt and a array of threats worthy of respect. Ben Morgan has been in barnstorming form and has earned an England recall, former Leicester Tigers stalwart Ed Slater is back in the second row to captain the side, Matt Banahan will be a hard man to stop if he gets going and the semi-final loss to Racing 92 is too fresh for Munster not to be wary of lingering line-out knowledge in Gerbrandt Grobler’s possession.
Then, of course, there is the terrifically talented Danny Cipriani.
It has already been a tumultuous year for the 30-year-old playmaker. His first England start in a decade was thoroughly deserved after he delivered some of his best rugby for Wasps.
Since moving to Gloucester he has already returned to haunt his old side at the Ricoh Arena with a dazzling display of incisive running and a sublime breadth of passing. However, controversy has dogged the Londoner since the switch too; namely a £2,000 fine and guilty plea to common assault for a pre-season incident in Jersey that left a female police officer with a bruised neck.
Carbery in training at UL this week. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO
It will be intriguing to see Cipriani stand opposite Joey Carbery in Thomond. On the field, there are inescapable similarities between the Athy man and the 16-cap England international. If the rain stays away during the 80 minutes ahead, the elusive running and seamless passing from the men in the 10 jerseys could make for quite a spectacle.
Munster are bruised by their exploits in Exeter, Keith Earls’ warm-up injury keeps him out again and Van Graan has made four changes to his pack. Niall Scannell’s presence will be missed after he picked up a training ground knock midweek. Rhys Marshall comes into the side in his place among an all new front row while Tommy O’Donnell replaces Chris Cloete at openside.
Munster will never shake off the connection with their past in this competition, but the modern iteration of the reds have weapons in every department to trouble (former Ulster and Ireland centre) Jonny Bell’s defence.