Munster confirmed a semi-final date against the Ospreys in Liberty Stadium with a facile win over a half-baked Ulster side full of youngsters, but injuries to Paul O’Connell and Damien Varley will seriously hurt their chances of success.
The Ospreys of the 2011-12 season are a rough, tough bunch, far removed from the preening ‘Galacticos’ of a couple of seasons ago. Despite losing first-rate foreign talent like former All Blacks Jerry Collins and Marty Holah, they’ve retained a tough, grinding pack that has genuine depth in pretty much every position. The excellent Holah has been replaced by Justin Tipuric, the best openside in the competition bar none this season, and both the Samoan hitman George Stowers and his non-union Welsh equivalent Joe Bearman were recruited [from London Irish and the Newport Gwent Dragons respectively] to fill the Collins-shaped hole.
Ryan Jones and Jonathan Thomas are Ospreys stalwarts who have somehow managed to co-exist in the same club despite being practically the same player. They’re of the same dimensions, both are capable of playing at No8, on the blindside and in the second row, and they’ve each earned more than 60 Welsh caps.
Ian Evans – who played every single minute of the Welsh Grand Slam in this year’s Six Nations – is joined in the second row by Alun-Wyn Jones, who has already logged 62 Welsh caps at just 26 years old. Behind them is 35-year old Ian Gough, an aging but under-rated tighthead lock with more than 60 Welsh caps of his own.
The depth carries all the way through the pack. Adam Jones is a world-renowned tighthead with 80 Welsh caps, while fellow Hair-Bear, loosehead namesake Duncan Jones, has 57. However, the No1 jersey will likely be filled by the destructive scrummager Paul James, who single-handedly plowed the Leinster scrum in the recent RDS fixture, sending two tightheads off the pitch injured and giving a third flying lessons. The talented youngster Ryan Bevington [who was part of Wales' World Cup squad] is also a possibility on the left hand side of the front row, while Aaron Jarvis provides decent back-up on the right.
Hooker Huw Bennett’s season was ended by injury, so the No2 jersey will be filled by Richard Hibbard, the explosive but inconsistent Welsh international; with Bennett out, there’s also the chance that Mefin ‘The Muffin Man’ Davies will be on the bench at 39 years old.
That’s crazy depth. There are six forwards available for selection with more than 50 Welsh caps: Adam, Duncan, Ryan and Alun-Wyn Jones, Ian Gough and Jonathan Thomas. A seventh, Bennett, is injured. The Ospreys have three Welsh international looseheads on the books, and you can bet a pound to a penny that they’ll be more than happy to use that bench and take a right poke at a depleted Munster pack.
In contrast, Munster have become serially short on numbers this season. Ironman John Hayes re-retired at Christmas, having passed his thirty-eighth year; Jerry Flannery finally called it a day after three aborted comebacks from the same injury; and David Wallace, the real Superman in the Munster pack – he even looks like him! – had to sign off recently, having failed to make it back from cruciate surgery.
Denis Leamy is a long-term absentee with a career-threatening hip complaint; Niall Ronan is another victim of the dreaded cruciate; and James ‘Germany’ Coughlan is out with a broken bone in his hand.
With O’Connell having redamaged the knee that he originally injured on Irish duty against France, and Varley having badly sprained an ankle, the Munster pack is not just weakened, but weak. The Ospreys will target their scrum, with Adam Jones well capable of causing Wian du Preez serious trouble and any two of Paul James, Duncan Jones and Ryan Bevington queuing up to try a knock a corner off the reputation of BJ Botha.
Without O’Connell, the Munster lineout isn’t a dominant beast. Micko will likely partner Donncha in the engine room – not a bad combination for third and fourth choice players by any means – and while Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony provide excellent backrow options, Ian Evans was a beacon for Wales during the Six Nations, Alun-Wyn Jones is no slouch, and Jonathan Thomas or Ryan Jones are well used to being primary options, not just third-in-line. It’s difficult to see any advantage for Munster here.
It’s pretty obvious that I’ve left something out here. Ah … that’s right, the backs. The Mole is a firm believer that this game will be an example of the old adage, “forwards decide who wins the game, backs decide by how much”.
With Tommy Bowe recuperating from surgery, Ickle Shane on his meandering way out, and James Hook, Lee Byrne, Mike Phillips and Gavin Henson all just memories and expensive pen pics, the Ospreys aren’t the massive threat out wide that they used to be. Centres Beck and Bishop are mainstays of the side, but they’re tidy players rather than game changers. Biggar is a little under-rated by Warren Gatland, and certainly has length on his side compared to ROG these days.
Munster have exciting runners in Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and Felix Jones, but the O’Gara/Mafi midfield is a serious limiting force: ROG can’t break and Mafi won’t pass. The Mole doesn’t think it’s going to be decided by backlines though.
The Ospreys have a big, tough pack full of hugely experienced internationals. They’ve got technicians in the lineout [Evans] and in the scrum [James and Adam Jones]; they’ve got ball-carriers [Stowers, Ryan and Alun-Wyn Jones, Hibbard] and they’ve got Test Lion quality. They’ve got depth, and they’ve got home advantage. The Ospreys have beaten Munster twice already this season, and this isn’t the Munster machine of 06-09 rolling into town. Ospreys to take this one.