The clash between Gloucester and Munster at Kingsholm on Friday night will go a long way in deciding who qualifies for the knockout stages of the Heineken Champions Cup from Pool 2.
Despite Munster being top and Gloucester being bottom of the pool, all four teams are still in contention to qualify for the knockout stages, such has been the topsy-turvy nature of this grouping.
Munster have been in pole position but their loss away to Castres last time out has opened the door to the rest of the teams which means that confirmation of advancement to the quarter-finals will likely go down to the last round.
With Munster securing the bonus-point last time out in the first meeting between the two sides, albeit with help due to a Danny Cipriani red card, the Cherry & Whites will have a point to prove in front of their passionate supporters.
It has all the makings of a classic and here we take a look at some of the key battles which will prove crucial in determining the outcome of this fixture.
Danny Cipriani v Joey Carbery
These two highly talented and influential out-halves will be looking to dictate proceedings in what is likely to be a very tight encounter.
Both players are coming into this game under a different set of circumstances.
Carbery has had the luxury of getting two highly competitive fixtures under his belt in the form of wins against Leinster at Thomond Park and Connacht in Galway.
Meanwhile, Cipriani is coming into this clash off the back of a chest injury he picked up in the Champions Cup loss to Exeter Chiefs in December.
This injury ruled Cipriani out of Gloucester’s last three matches and it will interesting to see whether any rustiness will affect his and his side’s game.
Carbery has shown, especially last time out against Connacht, that he can provide the platform for Munster’s territorial game.
The former Leinster out-half had many moments throughout his 80-minute performance where he targeted space behind the Connacht back-three where Munster subsequently piled on the pressure which resulted in scores.
For Gloucester, it all depends on whether Cipriani can perform to his best after being out for almost a month. His threat with ball in hand and his passing ability is renowned – if he can get his backline moving then Munster will be under a lot of pressure.
An interesting battle awaits.
Last time these sides met, Gloucester won the lineout stakes with 75% success rate for the Johann Ackermann’s side and 63% for Munster.
Munster securing their own lineout ball has been a problem this season and it has cost them valuable points. Too many times the southern province work their way in the ‘red zone’ only for lineout malfunctions to kill any momentum.
Those problems have alleviated somewhat in recent times, the secured 12/14 of their own ball (85%) against Leinster and 14/14 (100%) against Connacht.
Munster’s attacking maul is one of the best in Europe and when it fires, it can be devastating.
However, getting that to work against Gloucester won’t be an easy task.
With Ed Slater and Franco Mostert two excellent lineout operators, Munster will have their work cut out. They will also have to contend with Gerbrandt Grobler.
The South African, who played with the southern province last season, will be very familiar with his former side’s calls.
This always poses a problem to teams when they come up against former players, especially second-rows.
Do they steer away from their long-implemented playbook in the hope to get the better of their ex-teammate or do they stick to what they know as to not over complicate matters?
Munster will likely stick to what they have been doing all season and will hope that accurate execution in the timing of jumps and throws from Niall Scannell will be enough to win out in this area.
What both of these sides have in common is an incredibly dangerous back-three. Both sets of players will be hoping to adequately deal with the kicking threat of Cipriani and Carbery but it’s what they can do in attack which could swing this match in a particular side’s favour.
Munster are going with their tried and trusted back-three of Mike Haley, Andrew Conway and Keith Earls while the Kingsholm outfit have selected Tom Hudson, Charlie Sharples and Ollie Thorley.
All seasoned operators but Thorley has arguably been the standout player of these six this season. The former U-20 England World Cup winner has the most metres gained and assists of any Gloucester player in Europe this season.
Give him an inch of space and he will punish teams.
Ollie Thorley is the Player of the Month for November ?
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) December 12, 2018
The 22-year-old has superb footwork and acceleration and Munster will need to keep a close eye on him if they are to be successful on Friday night.
All in all, a superb and fiery encounter is expected. Last time out in Thomond Park, three yellow cards and a red were dished out over the 80 minutes.
There should be fireworks once again.