With the Conference A table hotting up, two sides with ambitions for the Guinness PRO14 Final Seriesface off when Munster head to Ospreys on Friday night.
The Welsh outfit will be keen to exorcise their demons after drawing a blank in their 8-0 defeat to Ulster last time out, while Munster’s 43-0 triumph over the Isuzu Southern Kings only served to underline their top-of-the-table credentials.
What’s at stake?
With the Guinness PRO14 now well back into the swing of things, Ospreys will be desperate to rediscover their mojo, and quickly.
Their defeat on home turf in Round 15 left them four points shy of Connacht in the Conference A standings, while they now trail Munster at the summit by 15.
For the Red Army, however, it’s a case of keeping the chasing pack at bay, with Glasgow Warriors just two points back after their dramatic 38-34 win over Cardiff Blues last weekend.
Team news (Ospreys)
Olly Cracknell skippers Allen Clarke’s side as he starts in the back-row alongside Sam Cross and Rob McCusker.
Luke Price comes in at fly-half to replace the injured Sam Davies, while Keelan Giles slots in on the right wing for Luke Morgan.
James Hook provides the fly-half back-up from the bench, with Lloyd Ashley dropping into the replacements in favour of McCusker, who starts at No.8, with James King shifting to lock.
Team news (Munster)
Johann van Graan has made six changes to the side that toppled the Southern Kings, with Calvin Nash making his first start of the season in a new-look set of backs.
Jaco Taute and Dan Goggin come in to make up the centre partnership, while JJ Hanrahan gets the nod at fly-half.
A pair of alterations in the pack sees Rhys Marshall start at hooker and Stephen Archer alongside him at tighthead prop, while Jack O’Donoghue makes the replacements as he looks to get his first game-time since he sustained a knee injury in May.
Ospreys head coach Allen Clarke said: “Friday night’s game against Munster is important if we are to keep challenging for the play-off positions. It’s obviously a massive test against the conference leaders but a test the boys are determined to embrace.
“There are six games to go in the regular season and with various head to head games in the conference over the next couple of weeks the importance of the next two matches is huge.
“Our goal is simply to still be fighting for the end of season knockouts when the internationals return for the last four games.”
Munster head coach Johann van Graan said: “We don’t look at the quarter-finals so much. Ospreys have been playing well and next week is Scarlets, so going into Wales twice in two weeks will be a tough assignment.
“We’re excited because it comes back to our squad and a lot of guys will get an opportunity to play and hopefully put their hands up for the rest of the season.
“It’s a pretty important week for us. I say it every week but this is the most important week: we only focus on our opponents this weekend.”
Rob McCusker v Arno Botha
The Munster No.8 has some serious numbers this Guinness PRO14 season, with figures in both tackles and carries enough to see him feature in the top 15 of all players in the competition after 15 rounds.
His danger both defensively and with the ball in hand is clear – he has also beaten no less than 27 defenders this campaign – and the returning Rob McCusker will likely be in for a busy afternoon keeping tabs on his opposite number.
Munster’s record on their last nine visits to Wales in won six, lost three, with all three defeats being to the Blues at the Cardiff Arms Park.
Did you know?
Ospreys have lost only once at Liberty Stadium in the Guinness PRO14 since November 2017: 20-29 to Glasgow last November.
Ospreys: Dan Evans, Hanno Dirksen, Cory Allen, Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler, Keelan Giles, Luke Price, Matthew Aubrey; Jordan Lay, Scott Baldwin, Tom Botha, James King, Bradley Davies, Olly Cracknell (C), Sam Cross, Rob McCusker
Replacements: Scott Otten, Rowan Jenkins, Ma’afu Fia, Lloyd Ashley, Will Griffiths, Reuben Morgan-Williams, James Hook, Luke Morgan
Munster: Mike Haley; Calvin Nash, Dan Goggin, Jaco Taute, Darren Sweetnam; JJ Hanrahan, Neil Cronin; Jeremy Loughman, Rhys Marshall, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Billy Holland (C); Fineen Wycherley, Chris Cloete, Arno Botha
Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, Liam O’Connor, Ciaran Parker, Darren O’Shea, Jack O’Donoghue, Alby Mathewson, Bill Johnston, Rory Scannell
TV: At Liberty Stadium, Swansea, 7.35pm. Live on Premier Sports, eir Sport, TG4
Referee: Stuart Berry
Assistant Referees: Adam Jones, Manuel Bottino
TMO: Ian Davies
Citing Commissioner: John Charles
Munster withstood a resilient Ospreys effort as Mike Haley’s try proved enough to keep the province at the top of Conference A.
Haley’s second-half effort gave Munster a narrow lead with time running out, and they held off a late Ospreys charge to emerge from the Liberty with the points.
Darren Sweetnam made early Munster pressure tell after six minutes of the contest, converting good territory into an overlap out left, with the 25-year-old taking a pass wide before cutting inside two Ospreys men to cross.
But Ospreys steadied the ship, holding out Munster before springing an attack of their own, Keelan Giles making ground before touching a lovely grubber into danger.
Reece Marshall tried to gather under pressure, but could only knock the ball backwards and into the path of Hanno Dirksen who gathered and dived over to level the scores.
Luke Price gave the hosts the lead from the tee, but Munster hit back as they peppered the Ospreys line before Tadhg Beirne looked to touch the ball at the post, but it was swatted away by Sam Cross.
After a look at the TMO, Cross was sent to the bin and a penalty try awarded to give the visitors the lead at the break.
Munster looked to control the game in the second half, and did just that for the first 20 minutes, but another Price penalty brought the deficit to just a single point.
But the visitors dug in, putting together phase after phase with excruciating patience before Haley found space out wide and flung himself into the corner to give Munster relief, but JJ Hanrahan’s missed conversion left Ospreys with hope.
But Munster stole an Ospreys line-out in last-chance saloon and saw out the contest.