Written by Conal Lane
It seems Munster have not wilted just yet, the outstandingly named Mr Rassie Erasmus may well have Champions Cup rugby to look forward to in his first season in charge. There lies the small matter of the Scarlets to overcome first though. Both teams coming off the back of a win last week folks, Munster ground out a victory over Edinburgh in a sold out and booming Irish Independent Park, and the Scarlets put down the dreadful Dragons in Union’s shortened version of the Magic Weekend. Bonus point triumphs for both means that the Scarlets are now guaranteed a seat at Europe’s top table and Munster need just match Ospreys result at home to Ulster to ensure the same. (SUFTUM!).
Munster sit bottom of the pile of teams who have a positive points difference, Scarlets sit just above. Now let us be fair, the three teams in the red are the Dragons, Treviso and Zebre (Aironi 2.0) who would struggle even if all three pooled their players and resources so that puts Munster and Scarlets even worse off. Scoring for Munster doesn’t seem to be an issue, 51 tries over the course of the season is bettered only by Glasgow, Connacht and Ulster. The tries conceded tally is just 36, again only bettered by the aforementioned three teams, plus Cardiff. So where then does a pretty awful points difference of +26 appear from. I’ll tell you where, PENALTIES! Stupid, unnecessary, brainless penalties. Munster now have less penalties scored for vs penalties scored against, cumulatively over all PRO12 seasons. A team which once prided itself on exemplary discipline, ten or fifteen phases of defending with no mistakes, silly knock ons or players spending too much time digging for a lost ball and getting penalized now seem to think nothing of giving away cheap penalties in kickable areas of the field. This needs attention, both in the short term for tomorrow and the longer term over next season and thereafter.
Munster: CJ Stander, Dave Foley, Francis Saili.
I am rapidly running out of superlatives to describe CJ Stander. Munster’s stand-in captain this season has been one of very few shining lights throughout the campaign. Works tirelessly and without thanks for eighty minutes week in week out, he has stepped up to the mark both for Munster and Ireland. Back in his favoured number 8 jersey this weekend, he will no doubt impact the game and plenty of Scarlets players along the way. Will teach his opposite number John Barclay how a top class number 8 handles matchday business.
At 27 years of age, Dave Foley can no longer be considered as potential, his time is now and he must grab the chance with both hands. Frustratingly inconsistent allied with a poor injury record, Foley needs to reclaim some of the form that saw him named man of the match on his Ireland debut back in 2014. A strong lineout operator and bullish at the breakdown and in the tackle, Foley needs to put his hand up for selection ahead of Holland and Chisholm for next season and beyond. He and Donnacha Ryan would probably form the angriest looking second row in the history of the game.
Twice capped All Black Francis Saili was meant to be Munsters star signing for this season. A statement of intent that the men in red had not lost their pulling power or allure. Instead I feel Saili has been (unfairly) compared to the impending signing of Charles Piutau by Ulster. Both men are New Zealand internationals, both played their club rugby for Auckland and both are formerly of Super Rugby’s Blues. Saili however is much more of a danger to his opposition, he possesses quick hands and a deft step to cut inside even the most positionally aware of defenders. Saili’s skillset is not helped by the brand of rugby currently practiced by Munster, lets hope he will throw caution to the wind this weekend and show the Thomond faithful what he is truly capable of.
Scarlets: Jake Ball, Liam Williams, Ken Owens
In addition to being the owner of a fine beard, Jake Ball is to Scarlets what CJ Stander is to Munster. The go-to man for ball carrying and usually found barking instructions to the rest of his forwards pack, Ball is a seventeen times capped Welsh international. Insurmountable in the lineout he is a tenacious operator in and around the breakdown. Partnered this weekend with South African journeyman David Bulbring, Ball will look to use his considerable experience to overcome Foley and Holland.
Many Welsh and Scarlets supporters feel that Liam Williams should have more than his 29 international caps. Seen as a better alternative to Alex Cuthbert, the rangy Williams reminds me somewhat of New Zealand’s Ben Smith. Looks more like an office photocopier salesman rather than a professional rugby player, Williams has this uncanny knack of just seeming to glide through defences rather than running around or over his opponents. Will put serious pressure on Saili and Scannell if he cuts inside and will provide an acid test of Zebo’s last ditch tackling skills.
Ken Owens is the latest in a line of elite Welsh hookers. Following on from Richie Hibbard, Huw Bennett and Matthew Rees, Owens is an exceptionally strong scrummager and leads from the front, captaining the Scarlets for the past two seasons. Lineout throwing is exemplary, usually in tandem with Jake Ball above. Owens will need to be at his best to prevent a Munster victory off the back of their famed lineout strength.
Munster: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Francis Saili, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Johnny Holland, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne (100th cap), Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Dave Foley, Billy Holland; Dave O’Callaghan, Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander – capt.
Llanelli Scarlets: Liam Williams; Gareth Owen, Steff Hughes, Hadleigh Parkes, Steff Evans; Steve Shingler, Aled Davies; Rob Evans, Ken Owens – capt, Peter Edwards; Jake Ball, David Bulbring; Lewis Rawlins, James Davies, John Barclay
No Pythagoras’ theorem or complex equations required here ladies and gentlemen, Munster need to just equal Ospreys result at home to Ulster to guarantee Champions Cup rugby next season. This is a minimum requirement, I personally don’t remember a season since 1995 where Munster did not at least start by eating at Europes top table, even if the dessert was served in the kids play area. The outstandingly named Mr Rassie Erasmus will be watching on in earnest, if not in attendance himself.
Munster by 10