Sale travel to Munster this Sunday in a tie which has no bearing on the knock-out stages of the European Champions Cup, but nonetheless may have a big impact on the rest of Munster’s season, and consequently, Anthony Foley’s future at the helm.
Given the fact that Munster have missed out on the knock-out stages of Europe for only the second time since 1998, morale is low around the province.
While there were few positives to draw from the trip to Saracens last week, it must be acknowledged that the winning margin was due to the situation Munster found themselves facing into the game.
Munster had to win, and perhaps this made them vulnerable to the hammering in store. Had they merely needed a losing bonus point, it would have been a tighter game, and Saracens would not have ran up such a score.
With Europe out of the picture, Anthony Foley must now turn his full focus to the Pro 12 after Sunday. But this does not render Europe completely irrelevant. A big win on Sunday would ensure that the pep returns to the Munster step, and would add real momentum to the league challenge.
Foley has announced an interesting selection, with Simon Zebo at fullback due to the injury of Felix Jones. The 24-year-old has donned the number 15 shirt in the past, but failed to fully excel. Zebo is recognised widely as one of the finest attacking wingers in the world at present, but his defensive struggles have held him back.
The Cork native has found himself lost positionally at times, and at fullback he will have to get it right so as not to be exploited by Danny Cipriani.
Elsewhere, Ronan O’Mahony starts on the wing, while Conor Murray is still injured, so Duncan Williams remains at scrum-half. Keith Earls returns to second centre and will be eager to make a statement to Joe Schmidt with the 6 Nations just two weeks away.
CJ Stander also loses out to injury, which has forced a reshuffle in the back-row. Peter O’Mahony lines out at number 8 for the first time this season, and Dave O’Callaghan starts at blindside, with Tommy O’Donnell openside.
In the first fixture between the sides, a drop-goal by Ian Keatley was the last kick of the game as the visiting side clinched a 27-26 victory at the death. Keatley will be expected to orchestrate a somewhat more facile win this time of asking as Sale, like Munster, they have little at stake.
The Dubliner will privately be satisfied that he has seen-off JJ Hanrahan, who heads for Northampton at the end of the season. But Keatley must back it up with a big performance against a visiting side who may crumble should the men in red open an early lead.
Despite a 16-point handicap granted by the bookies, it will not be all one-way traffic against the English side, who made Clermont dig deep for their win last week.
The Sharks led twice in the second half, only to fall 22-13 to the French giants. Munster have already seen that they are no pushover, and the big pack will look to silence Thomond Park at scrum-time.
But the real challenge will be in the half-backs. The experience of Chris Cussiter will trouble Duncan Williams, while on his day, Cipriani is unplayable. Although the inconsistency and controversy of the out-half has damaged his international career, he remains in the mix to lead the England attack into the World Cup.
While both Owen Farrell and George Ford are vying for a starting role, neither has made an overly-comprehensive case for inclusion.
If Cipriani can finish the season with a string of top performances, Stuart Lancaster will have some thinking to do. And what better way to get noticed than architecting a victory in Thomond Park? Simply, if Cipriani fires, Keatley will have a busy afternoon.
Sale travel to Limerick, as neither side has anything to play for but pride. However, when it comes to pride, Munster are hard to overcome, and they ought to come out on top to get their season back on track.
Munster XV to face Sale
Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Keith Earls, Denis Hurley, Ronan O’Mahony; Ian Keatley, Duncan Williams; James Cronin, Duncan Casey, BJ Botha; Dave Foley, Paul O’Connell; Dave O’Callaghan, Tommy O’Donnell, Peter O’Mahony (c).
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena