The race to reach the RaboDirect PRO12 play-offs is really hotting up now. Two of the competition’s in-form teams are set for a showdown at Thomond Park as Munster chase a season’s double over the Cardiff Blues.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Friday, February 24
MUNSTER (3rd) v CARDIFF BLUES (6th), Thomond Park, 7.05pm (live RTÉ Two/BBC 2 Wales)
Team News: Munster head coach Tony McGahan has made five changes in personnel to the team for Friday’s RaboDirect PRO12 clash with the Cardiff Blues at Thomond Park.
The majority of Munster’s team changes – with Ronan O’Gara, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony on duty with Ireland – are a direct result of the Six Nations match with Italy.
Denis Hurley will provide cover for Ireland this weekend so he is unavailable to the province, while Marcus Horan gets the nod over Wian du Preez at loosehead prop for the visit of the Cardiff Blues.
The absence of Hurley affords Tony McGahan the opportunity to reinstall Felix Jones at full-back. Jones looked sharp when he came on as a second half replacement in Treviso last weekend.
Tommy O’Donnell, who also returned from injury during that game, takes over on the openside of the scrum from O’Mahony.
Ian Keatley, who missed out on the trip to Italy after twisting an ankle, will wear the number 10 jersey in O’Gara’s absence and Billy Holland will operate in the second row alongside captain Mick O’Driscoll.
Meanwhile, the Cardiff Blues have made three changes for their latest league trip to Ireland.
The Blues have recorded victories over two Irish opponents in a fortnight with wins over Connacht and Ulster, both in Cardiff, and now travel to Ireland to face a Munster side that have lost just one of their last eight fixtures.
The Blues’ selection shows three changes to the side that beat Ulster. In the backs Richie Rees starts in place of Lloyd Williams at scrum half and Chris Czekaj takes over at full-back from Ben Blair, who moves to the replacements bench.
There is only one change in the forwards with Xavier Rush pulling out through illness. He is replaced at number 8 by Ma’ama Molitika.
Centre Casey Laulala, who will be playing in Munster colours next season, is missing from the Cardiff line-up due to a hamstring injury.
MUNSTER: Felix Jones; Johne Murphy, Danny Barnes, Lifeimi Mafi, Simon Zebo; Ian Keatley, Tomas O’Leary; Marcus Horan, Damien Varley, BJ Botha, Billy Holland, Mick O’Driscoll (capt), David O’Callaghan, Tommy O’Donnell, James Coughlan.
Replacements: Denis Fogarty, Wian du Preez, Stephen Archer, Dave Foley, Paddy Butler, Duncan Williams, Scott Deasy, Luke O’Dea.
CARDIFF BLUES: Chris Czekaj; Richard Mustoe, Gavin Evans, Gavin Henson, Tom James; Dan Parks, Richie Rees; John Yapp, Ryan Tyrrell, Scott Andrews, Cory Hill, Paul Tito (capt), Michael Paterson, Martyn Williams, Ma’ama Molitika.
Replacements: Rhys Thomas, Nathan Trevett, Sam Hobbs, Macauley Cook, Thomas Young, Lewis Jones, Ceri Sweeney, Ben Blair.
Referee: Leighton Hodges (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Michael Black, Eanna O’Dowd (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Dermot Moloney (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Munster to win: 11/4; Draw: 25/1; Cardiff Blues to win: 1/4
Pre-Match Quotes: Damien Varley (Munster) – “There has been a lot of bad feeling out there towards where we are and where we have been, particularly after our Heineken Cup campaign last season, but it doesn’t really impact on us.
“We discussed it as a squad and went into this season knowing what we wanted to achieve out of the season.
“We are in a good position even though we haven’t been playing well on a consistent basis. What can you say about the guys who criticise you openly? Let them do what they want to do and we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.
“We have said something (with that performance against Northampton), but there is a lot more to say yet on the field.
“The Heineken Cup is the standard you want to set, it’s the competition where every team wants to set their standard and wants to win.
“But equally we want to win the PRO12 as much as the British & Irish Cup and the Heineken Cup, so we are not just relying on that.
“We have a lot of areas and preparation that we want to take forward in the next few weeks in the big PRO12 games we have coming up.”
Justin Burnell (Cardiff Blues) – “Munster have a fantastic development programme and always seem to find those one or two players that when their internationals are away can step up for them.
“It’s going to be quite interesting who their latest find is. They will be good at Thomond Park as always, but it’s a fantastic opportunity for our players to show their worth.
“There’s always a great atmosphere (in Limerick) and we relish going there to play in front of their very vocal support.
“The Blues and Munster both have a game in hand and if we can take their scalp it would put us above them and we would be back in the top four.”
Top Scorers – 2011/12 RaboDirect PRO12: Munster – Points: Ian Keatley 113; Tries: Danny Barnes 5; Cardiff Blues – Points: Ceri Sweeney 62; Tries: Alex Cuthbert 5
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
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
Friday, March 25, 2011 – Cardiff Blues 15 Munster 16, Cardiff City Stadium
Friday, September 23, 2011 – Cardiff Blues 13 Munster 18, Cardiff City Stadium
– Munster were the only side to grab a try-scoring bonus point in the RaboDirect PRO12 last weekend, and have lost just one of their last eight fixtures in all competitions
– Cardiff Blues’ single reversal in their last six matches was a 40-3 beating at Gloucester in the LV= Cup on January 28
– The Blues’ only wins in Ireland in the past two seasons have both been at Connacht
– Munster have won their last three matches against the Blues, while the Welshmen have not won on Munster soil since a 19-17 victory at Musgrave Park back in October 2007