Updated: Friday, 10 Jan 2014 18:57 | Comments
By Brendan Cole
Munster face the type of trip to England they have come to relish over the years, and with the prospect of wrapping up the pool and qualifying a week early on the cards, won’t lack for motivation.
It is rarely easy to win away from home against English clubs but Gloucester are struggling in the Aviva Premiership, where they are in ninth place with just four wins this season, and have vulnerabilities Rob Penney’s men will fancy they can exploit.
They do have talent behind the scrum with England squad out-half Freddie Burns having plenty of good attributes, Billy Twelvetrees effective in the centre centre and Charlie Sharples a danger man on the wing.
But it is up front that Munster will fancy they can do the most damage, with the BJ Botha-anchored scrum and the carrying of the likes of Dave Kilcoyne, Paul O’Connell, Tommy O’Donnell and James Coughlan perfect weapons for testing Gloucester’s mettle. James Downey, back in the side at inside-centre, gives Munster another ball-carrier capable of severely testing Gloucester’s appetite.
Conor Murray’s return at scrum-half is also a major positive, while Ian Keatley will seeking redemption after a poor performance in last week’s defeat to Ulster at Ravenhill. JJ Hanrahan could well get a run and has a chance to become the number one out-half in the province soon after some excellent performances of late.
There is a sense that Munster’s backline will need to find the next level if they are to be a factor at the sharp of this tournament, but there is time for them to come good there. This weekend, the pack should be able to deliver the goods.
Connacht will expect to add a third win to their tally in Pool Three when they take on Zebre at the Sportsground. Qualification for the quarter-final is out of reach even if the westerners can finish with two wins in their last two games, but Connacht could claim a place in the Amlin Challenge Cup if they can win against Zebre and do the same against Saracens in London next week.
Unlikely but, given their heroics in Toulouse, by no means impossible.
It would be easy to dismiss that win in France as a flash in the pan, but Connacht have shown good form over the last six weeks or so without getting the results they deserve. In fact, they are now the bottom of the RaboDirect Pro12 table having been passed by Zebre last week after their win over Treviso in the Italian derby.
Despite that, Connacht should still be able to do the business in this clash. Lam deserves credit for naming the same young, all-Irish qualified backline that started against Leinster, and it will again be interesting to see how Jack Carty goes at out-half. Robbie Henshaw’s performance at outside-centre will also be well worth keeping an eye on.
Up front, the return of openside Jake Heenan to the starting line-up is a boost, though Connacht will miss New Zealand import neck-injury victim Craig Clarke’s influence at the heart of the pack.
Dan Parks and Gavin Duffy are among those in reserve should experienced hands be needed to steady the ship at any stage, but that should not be necessary against a moderate Zebre selection.
Heineken Cup predictions:
Gloucester 12-18 Munster
Connacht 21-6 Zebre
Gloucester Rugby: Martyn Thomas; Charlie Sharples, Jonny May, Billy Twelvetrees (c), Shane Monahan; Freddie Burns, Dan Robson; Yann Thomas, Darren Dawiduik, Sila Puafisi, Elliot Stooke, James Hudson, Matt Cox, Matt Kvesic, Gareth Evans
Replacements: Huia Edmonds, Dan Murphy, Shaun Knight, Tom Hicks, Sione Kalafamoni, Tavis Knoyle, Rob Cook, Ben Morgan
Munster Rugby: Felix Jones; Keith Earls, Casey Laulala, James Downey, Johne Murphy; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Damien Varley, BJ Botha, Dave Foley, Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony (c), Tommy O’Donnell, James Coughlan
Replacements: Duncan Casey, James Cronin, Stephen Archer, Donncha O’Callaghan, CJ Stander, Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan, Simon Zebo
Connacht: Darragh Leader; Fionn Carr, Robbie Henshaw, Eoin Griffinm, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Brett Wilkinson, Sean Henry, Nathan White, Mick Kearney, Andrew Browne, John Muldoon (captain), Jake Heenan, Eoin McKeon.
Replacements: Jason Harris-Wright, Denis Buckley, Rodney Ah You, Michael Swift, George Naoupu, Paul O’Donohoe, Dan Parks, Gavin Duffy
Zebre: G Palazzani; G Toniolatti , K Ratuvou, G Garcia, D Berryman; L Orquera, A Chillon; M Aguero, D Giazzon, D Chistolini, Q Geldenhuys (capt), G Biagi, F Ferrarini, D van Schalkwyk, S Vunisa,
Replacements: T D’Apice , A de Marchi, D Ryan, M Bortolami, N Cattina, R Quartaroli, R Trevisan, D Odiete.