Top-of-the-table Munster welcome Scarlets to Thomond Park on Friday evening, looking to keep the chasing pack of Leinster and Ospreys at arm’s length in the Guinness PRO12.
What’s at stake?
Both Munster and Scarlets are comfortable inside the Guinness PRO12’s top-four, but with the race for the coveted semi-final spots picking up pace, neither will want to give an inch.
Munster could watch the remainder of the weekend’s action safe in the knowledge that they will still be top of the standings on Monday with a victory.
The Irish province have also won nine league games on the bounce, and will not be keen to surrender that record against Scarlets – who they beat 23-13 on the opening weekend of the season.
The Welsh region are also enjoying a purple patch having endured a stuttering start to their campaign; they have won 11 of their last 12 league matches.
But they remain only fourth in the standings and with a resurgent Ulster – whose next three games are against Italian opposition – breathing down their necks, they cannot afford to go off the boil.
Team news (Munster)
Rassie Erasmus makes five changes to the side that ground out a win against Ospreys last weekend, with Jack O’Donoghue (ankle) and Rory Scannell (knee) ruled out through injury.
Jaco Taute has recovered from a shoulder knock to start at full-back, while academy centre Dan Goggin starts alongside Francis Saili in the centres.
Stephen Archer and Dave Foley come into the front row and engine room respectively, while back row Conor Oliver makes just his second start in the Guinness PRO12 and takes on the No.8 jersey.
Team news (Scarlets)
Scarlets had a big boost with danger-man DTH van der Merwe recovering from a hamstring strain to start on the wing.
Hooker Ryan Elias also returns to the starting XV in the only other change to the side that ran in six tries against Zebre, with scrum-half Aled Davies released from the Wales camp but starting on the bench.
Munster are arguably the hardest side to beat in the Guinness PRO12 at the moment, and Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac is under no illusions that his side will have to combat their combativeness in Limerick.
He said: “You don’t have to have a look at too many clips to see how they play the game but they’re very, very, efficient.
“They play a territory game and have a strong defence. They’re a strong side and not only are they efficient in the way they play the game but they’ve also got a great fighting spirit in the squad this year.
“Week in, week out they’re performing over the 80 minutes, every team is striving to do that but they’ve done it really, really well.
“They’ve had some close calls but they’ve come out on the right side and that’s a sign of a well-bonded team.”
Ronan O’Mahony is Munster’s top try-scorer so far this season, but he will have his hands full defensively with Van der Merwe running right at him on Friday evening.
The 30-year-old Canadian is one of the slipperiest customers in the Guinness PRO12, and having only scored three times in an injury-hit season so far he will be keen to make up for lost time.
Van der Merwe has been the thorn in Munster’s side before, scoring a try for Glasgow Warriors in the Scots sensational Guinness PRO12 final victory over them back in 2015.
Munster’s attack may not be the most potent in the Guinness PRO12, but they are by far the hardest side to break down with just 21 tries conceded. Scarlets are not far behind them however on 24 (the second-fewest in the league), meaning this will be a hard-earned win for whoever emerges on top.
Did you know?
The Welsh Region have won away from home against an Irish province just once since November 2013, and that by a single point at Ulster a year ago.
Top points scorer: 96 – Tyler Bleyendaal
Top try scorer: 7 – Ronan O’Mahony
Top points scorer: 91 – Rhys Patchell
Top try scorer: 6 – Steffan Evans
Munster: Jaco Taute, Darren Sweetnam, Francis Saili, Dan Goggin, Ronan O’Mahony, Tyler Bleyendaal, Duncan Williams, Dave Kilcoyne, Rhys Marshall, Stephen Archer, Dave Foley, Billy Holland, Dave O’Callaghan, Tommy O’Donnell, Conor Oliver.
Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, Peter McCabe, Brian Scott, Darren O’Shea, Fineen Wycherley, Abrie Griesel, Ian Keatley, Andrew Conway.
Scarlets: Johnny Mcnicholl, DTH van der Merwe, Steff Hughes, Hadleigh Parkes, Tom Williams, Dan Jones, Jonathan Evans, Wyn Jones, Ryan Elias, Werner Kruger, Tom Price, Tadhg Beirne, Aaron Shingler, James Davies, Will Boyde
Replacements: Dafydd Hughes, Luke Garrett, Nicky Thomas, Rynier Bernardo, Morgan Allen, Aled Davies, Aled Thomas, Ioan Nicholas
Overall Guinness PRO12 head to head record:
Played 27, Munster won 16, Scarlets won nine, with two games drawn.
At Thomond Park, 7.35pm Live on TG4
Referee: Dan Jones (WRU, 5th competition game)
Assistant Referees: Simon Rees (WRU), Jonny Erskine (IRFU)
Citing Commissioner: Peter Ferguson (IRFU)
TMO: Charles Samson (SRU)
A sparkling second half performance from Scarlets saw them complete a fine comeback win to end Munster’s unbeaten Guinness PRO12 run.
Going into the game without a domestic blemish on their copybook since October – a run of nine games – it looked set to be continued as Munster established a 21-6 lead at the break.
But three rapid-fire tries around the hour mark turned things in Scarlets’ favour, with Munster unable to hit back as they fell to an unexpected loss.
The visitors got off to a fast start when Jaco Taute dropped the ball, conceding a penalty that Daniel Jones had no problems in dispatching through the posts after just one minute.
And Scarlets continued to press forwards in the opening stages, but Munster stood firm and eventually turned defence into attack, but Darren Sweetnam could not find Duncan Williams with the offload after breaking clear.
Scarlets regained possession but when Billy Holland won a turnover Munster were in for the opening try of the night.
Dave O’Callaghan was stopped short of the line, but quick recycled ball led to Taute going over – Tyler Bleyendaal adding the extras in the 12th minute.
The Welshmen narrowed their deficit minutes later when Munster were caught offside and Jones slotted over a second penalty to trail by just one.
The home side responded, though, and a lineout drive led to a penalty that Bleyendaal dumped into the corner to set up another catch and drive.
It paid dividends, too, as Sweetnam went over on 22 minutes and, once confirmed by the TMO, Bleyendaal was again accurate from the tee.
Two tries became three before the half hour mark as Conor Oliver went over, making the most of fellow academy man Dan Goggin’s break – Bleyendaal again adding extras.
But neither side could add to the score before the break and a scrappy end to the half saw Munster go in at half time leading 21-6.
Wayne Pivac’s men came out fighting in the second period and spend much of the opening ten minutes in Munster territory, forcing a penalty but Jones was wayward and they remained 15 points behind.
He made up for it in the 51st minute, though, making his third kick of the night after Munster were penalised for an infringement at the lineout.
And Scarlets continued to press, but when James Davies showed some pace on the flank, his pass to Aaron Shingler was too powerful and it found touch rather than the flankers’ hands.
But the try did come as Munster conceded another penalty and Hadleigh Parkes latched on to Aled Davies’ chip to cross the whitewash – Jones adding the extras.
And one try became two a minute later as Davies broke from the scum on the half way line, before feeding Johnny McNicholl on the supporting run to finish – Jones kicking the conversion to put Scarlets two points ahead.
Munster were rattled and a rampant Scarlets scored a third try in quick succession on the hour mark, Tom Williams going over in the corner with another Jones conversion extending their lead to nine with 18 minutes to play.
From then on Scarlets were on the back foot but stood their ground to repel attack after attack from the Munstermen, but a collapsed five-metre scrum on 70 minutes did not help their cause as the visitors were allowed to gather their thoughts and clear their lines.
And things weren’t going the home side’s way as, with five minutes remaining, David Kilcoyne thought he had given his side a lifeline – only for the TMO to rule he was just short of the line.
That was the last chance Munster could muster and, when the referee’s whistle blew it signalled the first home loss for the Irish province this season.
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017, 27th May, Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Ticket Information: Fans can still avail of an exclusive number of €30 tickets. Book via www.ticketmaster.ie. Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/final
23 Feb 2017