London Irish and Munster – the pacesetters in their respective leagues – clash at the Madejski Stadium in this mouth-watering Heineken Cup encounter. Can Munster bounce back from losing their unbeaten record for the season to Leinster?
HEINEKEN CUP: POOL 3: Saturday, October 9
LONDON IRISH v MUNSTER, Madejski Stadium, 5.45pm (live Sky Sports 1/HD1/3D)
Team News: Keith Earls has been pencilled into the Munster team for Saturday’s Heineken Cup Pool 3 showdown with London Irish.
The pool opener will be Earls’ first game for Munster since the Magners League semi-final against Leinster last May.
He missed Ireland’s summer tour to New Zealand and Australia with a groin injury and when that had cleared up, he then damaged an ankle in training with Munster in Cork in August.
Commenting on the Limerick youngster’s return, Munster squad advisor Mick Galwey said: “It’s great to have Keith back in the squad, He did a full session on Tuesday and came through that with no ill-effects.
“The only concern would of course be match time. He hasn’t had any of that for a long time.
“But it’s great to have him back in the matchday squad, particularly when you think of the injuries we have. It’s important to get back as many players as we can.
“A few weeks back we weren’t sure when exactly he’d be back, whether it would be Heineken Cup round 1 or 2. He’s in there now and that’s a huge boost.”
Earls is one of seven changes – two of them positional – that Munster coach Tony McGahan has made to the team for the trip Reading.
With Lifeimi Mafi suspended, Earls joins Sam Tuitupou in Munster’s midfield for the first time.
Johne Murphy, who featured at centre for the opening three Magners League matches, has been named at full-back ahead of Paul Warwick who drops to the replacements.
Murphy’s place on the left wing has been taken by Denis Hurley, while Peter Stringer comes in for thumb injury victim Tomas O’Leary, winning his 197th Munster cap at scrum half.
Illness ruled Tony Buckley out of the league defeat to Leinster, but he returns to the tighthead position this weekend and there is a major shake-up in the Munster back row – Denis Leamy skippers the side from blindside flanker and James Coughlan makes his second start of the season at number 8.
New Zealander Tuitupou is set to make his Heineken Cup bow, having played for Worcester Warriors before in the Amlin Challenge Cup.
It will be a first Heineken Cup start for both hooker Damien Varley and lock Donnacha Ryan, while replacements Mike Sherry and Duncan Williams are standing by to make their debuts at this level.
Meanwhile, winger Sailosi Tagicakibau will make his 100th appearance for London Irish in the club’s first ever competitive tussle with Munster.
The Samoan flyer will lead out the Exiles in front of a near capacity crowd at the Madejski Stadium for their clash with the two-time European champions.
The 28-year-old returns to the starting line-up in place of Academy winger Jonathan Joseph, after his two-try cameo off the bench in London Irish’s 40-24 win over Leeds last weekend.
The other personnel changes see centre Elvis Seveali’i and prop Faan Rautenbach return to the side in place of Dan Bowden and Alex Corbisiero. Back rower Chris Hala’Ufia has been named in the matchday squad for the first time this season.
London Irish coach Toby Booth said: “Despite Munster’s reputation, we are confident in our own ability and have prepared for Saturday’s match exceptionally well.
“We believe that on our day we can be a handful for any team, whatever their history and I am expecting an excellent game of rugby.
“We are predicting great support and a big crowd at the Madejski Stadium and I would encourage our supporters to come out in force.”
LONDON IRISH: Delon Armitage; Topsy Ojo, Elvis Seveali’i, Seilala Mapusua, Sailosi Tagicakibau; Ryan Lamb, Paul Hodgson; Clarke Dermody (capt), James Buckland, Faan Rautenbach, Nick Kennedy, Bob Casey, Kieran Roche, Declan Danaher, George Stowers.
Replacements: David Paice, Max Lahiff, Alex Corbisiero, Matthew Garvey, Chris Hala’Ufia, JJ Joseph, Dan Bowden, Darren Allinson.
MUNSTER: Johne Murphy; Doug Howlett, Keith Earls, Sam Tuitupou, Denis Hurley; Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer; Wian du Preez, Damien Varley, Tony Buckley, Donncha O’Callaghan, Donnacha Ryan, Denis Leamy (capt), Niall Ronan James Coughlan.
Replacements: Mike Sherry, Marcus Horan, John Hayes, Mick O’Driscoll, David Wallace, Duncan Williams, Paul Warwick, Scott Deasy.
Referee: Christophe Berdos (France)
Assistant Referees: Jean-Luc Rebollal, Eric Gauzins (both France)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): London Irish to win: 4/7; Draw: 20/1; Munster to win: 11/8
Pre-Match Quotes: Denis Leamy (Munster) – “We realise that you don’t get too many shots at winning the Heineken Cup. Your career is only a certain amount of years and you don’t get many chances.
“Having been successful in 2006 and 2008, some of us thought we’re going to continue for years but it doesn’t work like that.
“As soon as you drop off even a small bit another team passes you by. So we’ve had to regather ourselves, refocus and set new a challenge.
“We’d dropped below the standards we set for ourselves and it’s not being beaten in a semi-final, it’s the way we were beaten in both of those semi-finals.
“We didn’t play to our ability, we didn’t make it hard for the team that beat us and we were just very disappointed in the manner it happened.
“At Munster we never mind if a team deserves to beat us and we’ve played to our ability – but to go out like that was very disappointing.
“We ask to be judged by the highest standards and if we fall from those and we get criticism, we can’t say it’s unfair. Getting to semis isn’t enough for us. We need to be winning these competitions.
“The Heineken Cup is definitely a step-up, let’s not try and kid anyone here. The Magners League is a great competition that’s growing year-on-year with some very good quality teams, but there’s a different intensity, a different mindset and it’s a great competition, the Heineken Cup.
“It comes once, twice every couple of months and the fans are very involved and that rubs off on us.
“There’s no doubt that (a tough pool like this one) brings the best out of us. We’ve got to go to London Irish, a very good Premiership side, got to go to Toulon in France and it’s always very difficult down there, and then the Ospreys, the reigning Magners League champions.
“So it’s very exciting. You want it that way, to play in big games, and it’s a great challenge for us.”
Bob Casey (London Irish) – “I’ve played against Munster many times in the past and I have a lot of family and friends coming over for the game, so I’m really looking forward to it.
“It is a very proud day for London Irish fans, the club and for myself. We have worked hard over the summer and we want to achieve things. It is important we show what we are about.
“We know what we are up against. We are just going to make sure we prepare meticulously and go out there and work our socks off.
“It’s going to be a massive step-up in intensity and we know what we did in the first half against Leeds won’t be acceptable.
“We’ll just find that we’ll give ourselves too much of a points gap to close at half-time if we play like that, but I’m sure we won’t.
“As a group of players, Munster are incredibly ambitious and hard-working and have been at the top of European rugby for years. I know they are desperate for more and they always feel like they can win the Heineken Cup, and I’m sure this season is no different for them.
“They have some of the best Irish players ever – Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell, who is out injured, and Donncha O’Callaghan. These guys are fantastic players who work incredibly hard.
“Whoever takes that field in a Munster jersey always works incredibly hard and they are one of the hardest sides in Europe to beat.”
Current Form – London Irish – (Aviva Premiership): Won 33-16 at home to Saracens; Lost 20-13 away to Bath; Won 23-16 at home to Gloucester; Won 46-12 away to Newcastle Falcons; Won 40-24 at home to Leeds Carnegie
Munster – (Magners League): Won 33-17 at home to Aironi Rugby; Won 16-13 away to Edinburgh; Won 22-10 at home to the Ospreys; Won 43-29 away to Glasgow Warriors; Lost 13-9 away to Leinster
Previous European Meetings: 0
Heineken Cup Records:
London Irish –
2009/10: Failed to qualify from Pool 6
2007/08: Reached the semi-finals
2006/07: Failed to qualify from Pool 5
2002/03: Failed to qualify from Pool 5
2009/10: Reached the semi-finals
2008/09: Reached the semi-finals
2006/07: Reached the quarter-finals
2004/05: Reached the quarter-finals
2003/04: Reached the semi-finals
2002/03: Reached the semi-finals
2000/01: Reached the semi-finals
1998/99: Reached the quarter-finals
1997/98: Failed to qualify from Pool D
1996/97: Failed to qualify from Pool D
1995/96: Failed to qualify from Pool D