Ospreys coach Steve Tandy insists the coming few weeks during the international period will be make-or-break for his side if they are to have a successful Guinness PRO12 campaign.
The south Wales outfit travel to Irish Independent Park to take on Munster this weekend, who have lost just twice on home soil since mid-January against Ospreys themselves and Cardiff Blues.
The Welshmen have won just two of their last dozen encounters against Irish provinces, but the last six meetings between the two sides have been evenly split with three wins apiece – whilst Ospreys have lost on just two of their last six visits to Munster.
And although Tandy goes into the trip without 12 of his Wales internationals – who will be preparing for their clash with Australia – he believes his charges will stand and deliver in Cork.
“Going away to Munster is always one of the most difficult challenges in the Guinness PRO12,” he said.
“There’s a good vibe in the squad. They understand what they are walking into and are ready to go. We’ve seen time after time how they thrive in adversity and that spirit will have to be there again if we are going to get something out of this game.
“We’ve made a good start to the season but international windows go a long way to shaping how the season pans out.
“The bonus point win last weekend against the Dragons gives us some momentum for the two away games coming up in the Guinness PRO12, against Munster and Glasgow, but we realise that we can lose that momentum quickly if we aren’t on the ball.
“You look at any year where we’ve done well in this competition and you’ll see that we’ve picked up points in these periods.
“That’s the challenge that we face and, whatever players are pulling on the shirt, they know what standards are expected of them, regardless of any outside factors.”
Flanker Rob McCusker makes his first start for the Ospreys, while Tom Habberfield leads the side at scrum-half, and Tandy was given a huge boost when starlet Keelan Giles was released from Wales training – and he makes the starting XV.
Meanwhile, Munster’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has made four changes for the clash, with new signing Rhys Marshall named in his first matchday squad.
The New Zealand-born hooker joined from Super Rugby side Chiefs in the week, and signed a three-year deal with the Irish province.
Elsewhere Stephen Archer comes in to join Dave Kilcoyne and Niall Scannell in the front row, while Darren O’Shea and Robin Copeland form a new partnership in the engine room.
There is no change in the back row with captain Peter O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell and Jack O’Donoghue all keeping their places, but Tyler Bleyendaal returns to partner Duncan Williams in the half-backs.
And after a remarkable come-from-behind victory at Ulster last weekend, Erasmus is desperate to maintain that level of performance.
He said: “This is a very important week for us to keep the momentum going.
“We don’t want a rollercoaster kind of season. In Ospreys we are playing a team that has scored most tries in the competition and has one of the best defences.
“It is going to be a severe challenge.”
Overall Guinness PRO12 head to head record:
Played 29, Munster won 13, Ospreys won 15 with 1 match drawn.
At Irish Independent Park, 7.35pm.
Live on TG4 and BBC Wales
Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR, 57th competition game)
Assistant Referees: Stefano Pennè (FIR), Oisin Quinn (IRFU)
Citing Commissioner: Peter Ferguson (IRFU)
TMO: Carlo Damasco (FIR)
Dave Kilcoyne scored a try-double as Munster sewed up a bonus-point victory with ruthless efficiency at the expense of Ospreys.
Kilcoyne and Darren Sweetnam both dotted down within the first quarter of an hour as Munster, who have lost just twice on home soil since mid-January, gave Ospreys a mountain to climb.
Having won several key turnovers that stopped the Welsh region from finding a way back into the game, an all-action Ronan O’Mahony crossed for Munster’s third in the second half before Kilcoyne wrapped up the five points in the 69th minute.
The Cork crowd were treated to a Munster fifth three minutes from time through Robin Copeland.
Sweetnam looked bright for the hosts as did Osprey Josh Matavesi – at No.10 with Dan Biggar and Sam Davies both involved for Wales this weekend – in the opening exchanges.
But an old-fashioned pick-and-go brought up the first try of the night, as Kilcoyne converted huge Munster pressure after Ronan O’Mahony was stopped just short.
Tyler Bleyendaal added the extras and within a few minutes Munster were within the Ospreys 22 again after Andrew Conway broke free.
Munster then stole a lineout and though the lively Ronan O’Mahony was stopped inches from the line yet again, Sweetnam was the beneficiary in the corner – with Bleyendaal nailing a tough kick to put Munster up 14-0 to the good.
After a disappointing first quarter, Ospreys won a penalty that set up a lineout deep into Munster territory and it took a superb turnover from Niall Scannell to prevent a score.
Though the Welsh region were struggling to click offensively, they then showed tremendous fight to repel Munster after another long period of pressure.
And it looked as if Ospreys would get on the scoreboard to round out the half, only for Munster to force another crucial turnover and go in at half-time with a 14-point lead.
The visitors started the second half on a front foot though, aside from one 20 metre-break from teenager Keelan Giles, Munster remained impervious to attack.
When Eli Walker did breach the red wall in the 50th minute, as so often on the night, Munster immediately won the ball back – before showing just how clinical they can be.
Ronan O’Mahony pounced on an error from Matavesi and after kicking ahead, the wing got the try his play had deserved – though Bleyendaal’s conversion attempt shaved the post.
As the game entered its final quarter, Jonathan Spratt and Giles combined to hand Ospreys a spark and Brendon Leonard eventually found his way over.
But the former All Black was adjudged to have been offside in the build-up, keeping the Ospreys pointless.
Munster’s main concern was bringing up the bonus-point try and Ian Keatley’s grubber forced the Welsh region onto the backfoot.
After Munster won back possession, Ronan O’Mahony plunged through a gap and Kilcoyne completed the move for his second try of the night.
Munster continued to look dangerous with Keatley pulling the strings, before Copeland had the final say after working off a five-metre scrum with Bleyendaal converting.