KINGSHOLM ON A Friday night, with Munster travelling in search of another memorable victory on the road.
This is the kind of game that the Heineken Cup is all about [KO 7.45pm, BT Sport].
Adding to the excitement are the inclusions of key men on both sides – one unexpected and one hoped-for.
When Chris Farrell’s right knee was caught under a tackle in the final minute of last weekend’s win over Connacht, Munster feared the worst – as did the imposing centre himself.
Farrell [right] has been named at 13. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
But Munster say scans on the joint this week proved positive and Farrell has been named to start at outside centre once again for tonight’s clash with Gloucester, who welcome Danny Cipriani back from injury.
Given how effective Munster’s attacking game has looked with Farrell in the XV – just twice this season – it’s a major relief for head coach Johann van Graan, the province’s supporters and even the team-mates who are excited about playing with him.
“He’s just such a big threat, whether he’s running any form of line or hands or anything,” says Munster fullback Mike Haley, who returns to the team tonight.
“He sticks at least two players because what is he? He’s 6ft 5ins and 110, 115 kilos, something like that – you need a couple of boys to stop someone like that, don’t you?”
The final breath of relief will come from Munster fans when they see Farrell lining up on the pitch just before kick-off, having hopefully come through the warm-up unscathed, but it is a real boost for the province tactically, technically and mentally.
Spirits have been high this week at Munster’s training centre in Limerick, the feeling of momentum flowing around the facility after back-to-back wins over Leinster and Connacht, the latter victory bringing with it one of the best performances of the season from van Graan’s side.
Joey Carbery was man of the match at out-half and will be opposite a similarly creative player tonight in the shape of Cipriani, who returns from a chest injury to occupy Gloucester’s number 10 shirt.
The England international – now seemingly out of the picture for Eddie Jones again – is the heartbeat of Johan Ackermann’s team, with his pass selection and technique a particular delight.
Cipriani returns for Gloucester. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
Munster’s defence will have spent plenty of time studying Gloucester’s use of pullback passes and second-wave attacks, but they have faith that their own out-half can shine on the road.
“Joey’s a class act,” says Haley, who played with Cipriani at Sale Sharks. “They’re fairly similar but they aren’t in ways.
“Joey’s a great player. He got in here and did his job, probably knew a lot of the boys from Ireland camp and everything like that. He’s done great.”
Gloucester’s starting team contains another familiar face in Gerbrandt Grobler, who spent a season with Munster, while Springboks international Franco Mostert will be an important figure for the home team from the blindside flank.
The Premiership side’s backline contains searing pace in the shape of wings Charlie Sharples and Ollie Thorley, who has been in thrilling form in recent times and will punish Munster if given space to show his athleticism.
Gloucester are bottom of Pool 2 coming into this weekend but not out of contention for a quarter-final place yet, sitting just four points behind leaders Munster with two rounds remaining.
The confidence Munster bring after the last fortnight could be a decisive factor and van Graan will hope the increased belief will feed into all aspects of their performance, allowing the attacking improvements on show last weekend to be repeated in Kingsholm.
Munster will hope to come out on the right side of referee Romain Poite’s decision-making too.
Munster are feeling in confident form. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
Haley is joined by Rory Scannell, Conor Murray, Dave Kilcoyne, Stephen Archer and CJ Stander in coming into the starting XV, leaving Munster in strong shape.
Chris Cloete, who was back in training this week after a neck injury and had hoped to feature, is absent, although it’s unclear if that was related to a setback with his neck or simply a selection decision after Tommy O’Donnell’s excellent display against Connacht.
Rhys Marshall returns from injury to take a place on the bench and will aim to provide a highly-motivated Munster with impact as they look to strengthen their hold at the top of this pool ahead of the visit of Exeter to Limerick on 19 January.
“This is a game all teams love to play in, and that’s why you play in Europe, for these opportunities,” says van Graan. “Bar maybe two pools, all pools are so evenly poised and it’s literally on a knife-edge, both ways.
“Our pool, the fact that we lost the away one to Castres brought two other teams into it and now over the next two weekends, it’s which one of those four teams play the best within the 80 minutes.
“That’s exciting and if you’re in rugby and in sport you have to embrace these moments. You can’t inspire out of fear. We’ve got to inspire ourselves.”
15. Tom Hudson
14. Charlie Sharples
13. Billy Twelvetrees
12. Mark Atkinson
11. Ollie Thorley
10. Danny Cipriani
9. Callum Braley
1. Josh Hohneck
2. Henry Walker
3. Fraser Balmain
4. Ed Slater
5. Gerbrandt Grobler
6. Franco Mostert
7. Lewis Ludlow
8. Ben Morgan (captain)
16. Franco Marais
17. Alex Seville
18. Ciaran Knight
19. Freddie Clarke
20. Gareth Evans
21. Ben Vellacott
22. Owen Williams
23. Henry Trinder
15. Mike Haley
14. Andrew Conway
13. Chris Farrell
12. Rory Scannell
11. Keith Earls
10. Joey Carbery
9. Conor Murray
1. Dave Kilcoyne
2. Niall Scannell
3. Stephen Archer
4. Jean Kleyn
5. Tadhg Beirne
6. Peter O’Mahony (captain)
7. Tommy O’Donnell
8. CJ Stander
16. Rhys Marshall
17. Jeremy Loughman
18. John Ryan
19. Billy Holland
20. Arno Botha
21. Alby Mathewson
22. Tyler Bleyendaal
23. Dan Goggin
Referee: Romain Poite [FFR].
Ahead of a huge weekend of Heineken Champions Cup action, Murray Kinsella, Andy Dunne and Gavan Casey assess the provinces’ chances of putting a foot in the last eight:
Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud
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