After a break for European Rugby, the fight for the Guinness PRO14 Final Series is back on with another round of thrilling fixtures – including a Conference A clash as Munster host Cardiff Blues.
The two in-form sides will hope to take a significant step towards the Guinness PRO14 Final Series by securing a positive result on Friday night.
What’s at stake?
On the back on three consecutive wins, the Welsh outfit will be looking to leapfrog Connacht as they desperately seek the last Final Series qualification spot with just three games to go.
They currently sit level with the third-placed Connacht on 52 points but with an inferior points difference.
At this late stage of the season and with Connacht taking on Zebre, Cardiff Blues will know they cannot slip up.
Munster, meanwhile, know they can secure a place in the Guinness PRO14 Final Series with a victory.
But they will also be looking to pile pressure onto Conference A leaders Glasgow Warriors as top spot will guarantee them a bye to the semi-final.
Team news (Munster)
Johann van Graan has made six changes to his Munster side following a bruising Champions Cup quarter-final clash.
Munster will be without Joey Carbery after the fly-half limped off in last weekend’s win over Edinburgh.
As a result, Mike Haley, Tyler Bleyendaal, Kevin O’Byrne, Billy Holland, Chris Cloete and Arno Botha all come into the starting XV while Sammy Arnold, sat amongst the replacements, could be set for his first appearance since January.
Team news (Cardiff Blues)
Cardiff have made three changes to the team that dispatched Scarlets 41-17 in the previous round.
Grand Slam winner Josh Navidi has been ruled out for the rest of the season after coming off injured in the victory against Scarlets last time out.
He will be replaced by Shane Lewis-Hughes, while there are also spaces for Seb Davies and Dillon Lewis after Nick Williams and Dmitri Arhip suffered minor injuries.
Munster winger Keith Earls said: “We’ve turned the page on Edinburgh now and we’re coming up against a Cardiff side who have a lot to fight for and a side who have beaten us in Cork.
“They’re level on points with Connacht and they’re looking for a quarter-final and also we’re trying to put pressure on Glasgow as well. That’s the beauty of rugby, you push on to another big game.
“It’s the time of the season where we want to be playing in big games and important pressurised games.”
Kristian Dacey, who will make his 150th appearance for Cardiff Blues, said: “We have to be confident because we’ve had some really big results over the last few games.
“We’ve had some good results out there and have gone there and won a few times, so it’s nothing new.
“There’s a few of us who know what it takes to get a win out there and it will come down to hard work. Hopefully we can start big and carry that tone throughout the full 80 minutes.
“Our destiny is in our hands. It’s all exciting at the moment and we’re full of confidence and ready to go.
“We’re not where we want to be yet. We’re fourth in the Conference and to look any further than the next game would be wrong.”
Key battle – Keith Earls vs Aled Summerhill
Both wingers are in red-hot form; while the Munster ace notched two crucial tries in last week’s Champions Cup victory, Summerhill was on his game against the Scarlets as he scored a double.
With these offensive juggernauts going head-to-head, this game could be decided out wide.
Key fact: Cardiff Blues have won three successive games, and six of their last eight fixtures in Guinness PRO14.
Did you know? This season’s reverse fixture at Cardiff Arms Park saw Cardiff Blues triumph convincingly with a 37-13 result.
Munster: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Tyler Bleyendaal, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Kevin O’Byrne, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (c), Chris Cloete, Arno Botha.
Replacements: Niall Scannell, Jeremy Loughman, Stephen Archer, Tadhg Beirne, CJ Stander, Alby Mathewson, JJ Hanrahan, Sammy Arnold.
Cardiff Blues: Gareth Anscombe; Owen Lane, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Aled Summerhill; Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Rhys Gill, Kristian Dacey (c), Dillon Lewis, Seb Davies, Rory Thornton, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Olly Robinson, Josh Turnbull.
Replacements: Ethan Lewis, Brad Thyer, Keiron Assiratti, George Earle, James Botham, Lloyd Williams, Garyn Smith, Matthew Morgan.
TV: At Irish Independent Park, Cork, 7.35pm. Live on Premier Sports 2, S4C and TG4.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR)
Assistant referees: Andrea Piardi (FIR), Gianluca Gnecchi (FIR)
TMO: Stefano Penne (FIR)
CJ Stander produced a rousing cameo from the bench as Munster came from behind to beat Cardiff Blues 45-21 and secure their Guinness PRO14 Finals place.
Needing victory to seal qualification, the hosts – second in Conference A ahead of kick-off – recovered from Tomos Williams’ early score to lead by three points at half-time.
Williams added another as the Blues threatened to spoil Munster’s party, but substitute Stander scored shortly after arriving on the field to spark a comeback.
Conor Murray, Andrew Conway and Sammy Arnold then added late efforts as the hosts’ sealed their Finals place in style.
A fantastic six-try win at a sold-out Irish Independent Park!
Tries from Chris Farrell, Jean Kleyn, CJ Stander, Conor Murray, Andrew Conway and Sammy Arnold with Tyler Bleyendaal and JJ Hanrahan adding points off the tee! #MUNvCBL #SUAF 🔴 pic.twitter.com/30nk6Qidnh
— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) April 5, 2019
It took just seven minutes for the opening score of the game to come, but instead of the hosts establishing their dominance early on, it was the visitors who took a shock lead thanks to a moment of magic from Williams.
Gareth Anscombe, a key part of Wales’ recent Grand Slam win, found the onrushing Rey Lee-Lo, who in turn passed to Williams to weave his way over.
But Munster – particularly on home soil – present fierce opposition, and Johann van Graan’s men hit back just 10 minutes later through Chris Farrell, the centre using supreme force to crash his way through two Blues defenders and score after Peter O’Mahony had turned the ball over deep in the visitors’ 22.
Buoyed by the Ireland international’s effort, Munster continued to press for more, and a spell of relentless pressure saw lock Jean Kleyn power over from a dominant lineout.
In the face of a barrage, Cardiff, though, simply refused to fold – and had the reward their defensive toil deserved when the in-form Aled Summerhill combined with Matthew Morgan and Anscombe to race clear down the left.
That meant Munster held just a slender three-point advantage at the break, and with a Finals place still within grasp, Blues retook the initiative at the start of the second-half.
Scrum-half Williams, a standout throughout with his sniping runs and soft hands, took a quick tap-and-go in Munster’s 22 before surging through a gap and sending Lee-Lo over.
With the significant prize of qualification up for grabs, Van Graan’s response was to call on the big guns on the bench – and it paid dividends.
Stander bulldozed his way over to restore his side’s advantage, with Murray extending the Munster lead from short-range.
Conway then made sure of the points shortly after, the back flying over in the corner following fine play from Stander and a fizzed Farrekk pass.
And there was still time for one final Munster score, as Arnold – making his first appearance since January – dotted down to cap a fine night at the office for the home side.