With Leinster snapping at their heels, Munster, who have topped the RaboDirect PRO12 table over the last number of weeks, will have to win or draw at the Liberty Stadium if they are to remain in pole position.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Sunday, February 23
OSPREYS (3rd) v MUNSTER (2nd), Liberty Stadium, 4pm (live S4C/highlights TG4)
Team News: Donnacha Ryan, Tommy O’Donnell and Felix Jones all return from the Ireland camp to start for Munster against the Ospreys on Sunday.
Dave Kilcoyne has also been released for the RaboDirect PRO12 fixture. He is named on the replacements bench with head coach Rob Penney making six changes to the team that beat Zebre 36-8 last time out.
James Downey comes into the side to make his 40th Munster appearance with Casey Laulala drafted into the starting line-up to form a solid centre pairing.
Andrew Conway starts on the right wing in place of Gerhard van den Heever and Ian Keatley shifts from centre to out-half with Cathal Sheridan retaining his place at scrum half.
Jones starts at full-back with Simon Zebo, who has scored four tries in his last three appearances, on the left wing.
There is an unchanged front row as James Cronin, hooker Duncan Casey and BJ Botha keep their starting places.
Dave Foley comes into the team to partner Ryan in the second row with James Coughlan captaining the side from number 8.
O’Donnell and Sean Dougall – making his first start since injuring his ankle against Connacht in December – complete a dynamic back row.
Young Munster clubman Ger Slattery will be hoping for a repeat of last weekend’s two-try performance off the bench with Ireland internationals Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer completing the front row cover.
The province’s record appearance holder Donncha O’Callaghan and last weekend’s man-of-the-match CJ Stander are also named on the bench with Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan and Denis Hurley providing the cover for the backs.
Munster face the Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The game will be televised live on S4C with updates here.
Meanwhile, tighthead prop Dan Suter will make his first PRO12 start for the Ospreys when they host the Munstermen.
The Welsh region’s head coach Steve Tandy has made changes at half-back and in the front five as they look to follow up on last weekend’s record-breaking 11-try 75-7 trouncing of Benetton Treviso.
Matthew Morgan and Tom Habberfield come in to form the half-back pairing, while Duncan Jones and Suter gain starts in the front row and Perry Parker comes in for the injured Lloyd Peers (shoulder) at lock.
As well as being without their Six Nations-tied players, the Ospreys also have Andrew Bishop (back), Tom Isaacs (ankle), Tom Smith (knee) and Eli Walker (hamstring) out injured at present.
But they do have a good deal of experience on their bench with the likes of former Wales captain Ryan Jones, Tito Tebaldi, Hanno Dirksen and Richard Fussell all hoping to have an impact.
OSPREYS: Sam Davies; Aisea Natoga, Jonathan Spratt (capt), Ashley Beck, Jeff Hassler; Matthew Morgan, Tom Habberfield; Duncan Jones, Scott Baldwin, Dan Suter, Perry Parker, James King, Tyler Ardron, Sam Lewis, Joe Bearman.
Replacements: Matthew Dwyer, Marc Thomas, Joe Rees, Ryan Jones, Dan Baker, Tito Tebaldi, Hanno Dirksen, Richard Fussell.
MUNSTER: Felix Jones; Andrew Conway, Casey Laulala, James Downey, Simon Zebo; Ian Keatley, Cathal Sheridan; James Cronin, Duncan Casey, BJ Botha, Donnacha Ryan, Dave Foley, Tommy O’Donnell, Sean Dougall, James Coughlan (capt).
Replacements: Ger Slattery, Dave Kilcoyne, Stephen Archer, Donncha O’Callaghan, CJ Stander, Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan, Denis Hurley.
Referee: David Wilkinson (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Davies, Jon Mason (both Wales)
Television Match Official: Tim Hayes (Wales)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Ospreys to win: 7/5; Draw: 22/1; Munster to win: 4/7
Pre-Match Quotes: Rob Penney (Munster) – “We’ve always found it difficult against the Ospreys. They’re obviously full of quality Welsh players and they’re going to be a very difficult nut to crack at home.
“They embarrassed us a bit there last year (running out 30-15 winners). They dismantled us at scrum time and we really struggled to get any penetration at all.
“So, we’re not going there with any illusions of being able to just walk away with a result, we’re going to have to go there very well prepared mentally and physically and give it our best shot. If we’re able to secure a couple of points out of the game, that would be great.”
Steve Tandy (Ospreys) – “This game will be a big step up in intensity from what this young group have experienced in recent weeks, but it’s a challenge they are definitely up for.
“It was a good win last weekend (beating Benetton Treviso 75-7), but it’s been important to keep people’s feet on the ground in training.
“We put together some decent attacking moves, something we’ve put a lot of work into, but analysing the performance as a whole in the early part of this week we picked up a lot of areas where we need to improve.”
Top Scorers – 2013/14 RaboDirect PRO12: Ospreys – Points: Dan Biggar 129; Tries: Jeff Hassler 4; Munster – Points: JJ Hanrahan 130; Tries: James Cronin, JJ Hanrahan, CJ Stander, Simon Zebo 3 each
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Saturday, October 8, 2011 – Munster 13 Ospreys 17, Thomond Park
Saturday, December 3, 2011 – Ospreys 19 Munster 13, Liberty Stadium
Friday, May 11, 2012 – Semi-final – Ospreys 45 Munster 10, Liberty Stadium
Saturday, September 29, 2012 – Ospreys 30 Munster 15, Liberty Stadium
Saturday, March 2, 2013 – Munster 13 Ospreys 13, Thomond Park
Saturday, November 2, 2013 – Munster 12 Ospreys 6, Thomond Park
– The Ospreys’ 75-7 demolition of Benetton Treviso last time out was their biggest victory since the region was formed in 2003
– The Ospreys’ only two defeats at the Liberty Stadium in the RaboDirect PRO12 since September 2012 were to Ulster and Glasgow Warriors in rounds 5 and 9 this season
– The Welshmen have won only one of their last nine contests with Irish provinces: 43-26 against Connacht in Galway in the PRO12 last September
– Munster continue to set the pace at the top of the RaboDirect PRO12 standings, having suffered just one defeat in the league since round 3: 29-19 at Ulster on January 3
– The Munstermen have won all their six fixtures against Welsh opponents this season
– Munster have lost on their last three visits to Liberty Stadium since their 22-20 victory in April 2011