Munster go in search of their first away win over the Cardiff Blues since 2005 as Tony McGahan’s men look to strengthen their grip on top spot in the Magners League.
MAGNERS LEAGUE: Friday, March 25
CARDIFF BLUES (5th) v MUNSTER (1st), Cardiff City Stadium, 7.05pm (live TG4/BBC 2 Wales)
Team News: Ronan O’Gara and Conor Murray will be Munster’s starting half-backs when they resume their Magners League campaign against the Cardiff Blues.
Murray, who was handed his first start against the Newport Gwent Dragons recently, links up with the returning O’Gara in a side that includes Keith Earls, Denis Leamy and Paul O’Connell.
O’Gara, Earls, Leamy and O’Connell all saw action in Ireland’s RBS 6 Nations victory over England last weekend.
In explaining what is undoubtedly a big call at scrum half, Munster head coach Tony McGahan said: “Conor has been a consistent member of the senior squad in training over the past twelve months because of international call-ups and injuries in our half-back position.
“In this time he has gathered valuable training experiences from the more senior players in the squad which allowed him to play off the bench in the last Six Nations window and start against the Dragons in our most recent Magners League game.
“He impressed the coaching staff and fellow players with an enthusiastic and mature display in his first professional start.
“He deserves to be in the mix competing with Peter (Stringer) and Duncan (Williams) for game-time with Tomas (O’Leary’s) unfortunate bout of injuries.”
All in all, McGahan has made ten changes to the starting line-up from the win over the Dragons at Musgrave Park three weeks ago. One of those changes is forced by Paul Warwick’s return to Australia on family matters.
Elsewhere, the inclusion of the fit-again Felix Jones at full-back sees Johne Murphy switch to outside centre with Earls resuming the left wing in place of Simon Zebo.
Up front, it is all change in the front row with Wian du Preez, Damien Varley and Tony Buckley starting on this occasion.
O’Connell comes in for Ian Nagle in the second row, while the back row is unchanged apart from the inclusion of openside flanker Niall Ronan, who returned from injury in the ‘A’ game against Ulster Ravens last week.
Meanwhile, Cardiff Blues director of rugby David Young also welcomes a number of international players back for his side’s latest league fixture.
Wales’ John Yapp, Leigh Halfpenny, Bradley Davies and Jamie Roberts all return for regional duty, along with Scotland out-half Dan Parks.
But the Blues are without Wales back rower Sam Warburton who sustained a knee injury in the defeat to France last Saturday and is expected to be out for between four and six weeks.
Scrum half Lloyd Williams has recovered from the shoulder injury he sustained against Exeter in November, while hooker Rhys Thomas is unavailable after picking up a hip injury that may require further investigation.
Winger Tom James is out with a minor foot injury, and Gareth Williams (calf) and Taufa’ao Filise (Achilles) are also notable absentees.
CARDIFF BLUES: Chris Czekaj; Richard Mustoe, Casey Laulala, Dafydd Hewitt, Leigh Halfpenny; Ceri Sweeney, Lloyd Williams; John Yapp, Rhys Williams, Scott Andrews, Michael Paterson, Paul Tito (capt), Andries Pretorius, Martyn Williams, Xavier Rush.
Replacements: Kristian Dacey, Nathan Trevett, Sam Hobbs, Bradley Davies, Ma’ama Molitika, Tom Slater, Dan Parks, Jamie Roberts.
MUNSTER: Felix Jones, Doug Howlett, Johne Murphy, Lifeimi Mafi, Keith Earls; Ronan O’Gara, Conor Murray; Wian du Preez, Damien Varley, Tony Buckley, Paul O’Connell (capt), Mick O’Driscoll, James Coughlan, Niall Ronan, Denis Leamy.
Replacements: Mike Sherry, Marcus Horan, Stephen Archer, Donnacha Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Peter Stringer, Sam Tuitupou, Declan Cusack.
Referee: Alan Lewis (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Tim Hayes, Phil Connett (both Wales)
Television Match Official: Gareth Simmonds (Wales)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Cardiff Blues to win: 8/11; Draw: 20/1; Munster to win: 11/10
Pre-Match Quotes: Tony McGahan (Munster) – “We have a 10-week programme ahead of us, hopefully, and we’ll start that with Cardiff this week.
“We’ve got a Magners League campaign and the players that have been here during the Six Nations break have worked extremely hard to keep us in contention with regards to that, so that is our major focal point at this stage.
“It is better to have a tough schedule. If you are looking at the top sides and where they are and the draw that each side has in its path on the way home, we certainly have the most difficult draw.
“We have Cardiff, the Scarlets and the Ospreys away from home, with Leinster at home, and a very much-improved Connacht side in the last game of the season.
“Certainly you want to get a strong measure of where we are and those sides will provide that for us. If you’re going into finals you want to make sure that you have a hard run home and we’ve certainly been provided with that.
“We’re in week 40 next week, we’re in week 39 of the season since it started and in most of those weeks there was certainly some sort of compromise with regards to the programme.
“From here on in, things are really under our control with regards to the availability of players and we’ve been lucky enough to get a few injured players back in the last couple of weeks which gives us a fairly full complement to pick from.”
David Young (Cardiff Blues) – “Munster will always focus the minds of our squad and with or without their international players, Munster are always formidable.
“They are very physical, they do the basics really well and I think they have a squad that is as strong as anyone’s in the League.
“That’s why they are always at the top. There is competition for places in their team and that keeps everyone on their toes. They have a great tradition and fight for everything that goes with the shirt.
The pressure is no different for us than it is for any other team in the top five or six. Everybody realises that all the games very important and can’t afford to have a bad day.
“That is what I think the play-offs have added to the tournament. We will certainly have a buzz and enthusiasm around training over the new few weeks because each match is vital.”
Top Scorers – 2010/11 Magners League: Cardiff Blues – Points: Ceri Sweeney 97; Tries: Tom James, Rhys Thomas 4 each; Munster – Points: Ronan O’Gara 115; Tries: Doug Howlett 6
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Saturday, March 1, 2008 – Cardiff Blues 25 Munster 22, Arms Park
Saturday, September 20, 2008 – Munster 28 Cardiff Blues 20, Musgrave Park
Sunday, May 10, 2009 – Cardiff Blues 20 Munster 12, Arms Park
Friday, September 11, 2009 – Munster 24 Cardiff Blues 13, Thomond Park
Sunday, May 9, 2010 – Cardiff Blues 13 Munster 12, Cardiff City Stadium
Saturday, December 4, 2010 – Munster 16 Cardiff Blues 9, Thomond Park
– The Cardiff Blues’ only defeat in their last six Magners League matches was a 32-13 loss to Ulster on February 25
– The Blues’ most recent Magners League loss at Cardiff City Stadium was a 37-15 beating by Ulster last November
– Munster have lost only one Magners League game since November, going down 19-18 away to Benetton Treviso on February 13
– The Munstermen have lost on their last five visits to Wales in all competitions
– The last six clashes between these two sides have all been won by the home side on the day. Munster’s only previous win over Blues’ soil in the Magners League was an 18-16 success at the Arms Park in November 2005