MUNSTER made it six wins on the bounce in the RaboDirect PRO12 at Rodney Parade on Friday night to remain top of the table and provide coach Rob Penney with plenty of selection calls ahead of Sunday’s crunch Heineken Cup clash with Perpignan.
Penney has tended to rotate his squad through the season and the policy is likely to continue for the lunchtime fixture with the mid-table French Top 14 side at Thomond Park.
Munster’s backs coach Simon Mannix was at Perpignan’s Stade Aime Giral on Friday night for their Top 14 clash with Clermont - which the visitors won 30-23 - and will hope to have picked up some valuable clubs as to which Munster selection will cause the Catalans most problems.
In the past commentators would have relied on Munster’s line-up in their fixture prior to the Heineken Cup to provide vital clues as to the likely make-up of the team for the European assignment, but not any more.
Just because a player featured against the Dragons at the weekend doesn’t make him an automatic starter against Perpignan at Thomond Park. However, there are a number of selection issues which look clear cut.
Felix Jones is long odds-on to start at full-back and Casey Laulala and the fit-again James Downey remain the most likely midfield combination to face Perpignan.
The fact that Perpignan’s former Munster centre Lifeimi Mafi is suspended for this weekend’s game will take from the French side’s attacking options in midfield.
Downey and Laulala, Man of the Match in the recent win over Cardiff, are vastly experienced and Penney is likely to opt for the pairing again.
Keith Earls looks set to fill one of the two wing positions. Earls returned to action following five weeks on the sidelines with a knee condition in Friday night’s PRO12 win over the Dragons in Rodney Parade.
Earls was forced to sit out Ireland’s autumn Tests having developed patella tendonitis on the eve of his province’s league trip to Glasgow on October 25. However, fit-again, the Limerick man’s return to action is a major plus for coach Penney.
While Earls played in the centre against the Dragons on Friday, he is set to be deployed on the wing for the province’s European assignment this weekend.
Munster’s new South African signing Gerhard van den Heever filled one of the wing positions in Wales on Friday night, but he is not registered to play in the Heineken Cup. The 24-year-old also injured his arm in Wales.
Johne Murphy featured on the wing against Gloucester in the second round of the Heineken Cup, following Simon Zebo’s injury, and it is likely to will see Murphy restored to the starting line-up this weekend. The 29-year-old looks ahead of Denis Hurley in the pecking order for the starting jersey.
Ian Keatley’s top class kicking display and all-round form makes his a strong favourite to start ahead of JJ Hanrahan at out-half.
Hanrahan has bounced back superbly from the error he made which led to Edinburgh’s crucial late try in the opening round of the Heineken Cup in Murrayfield with a string of excellent displays, but the more experienced Keatley looks set to start this weekend. Conor Murray will start at nine.
In the front row, Dave Kilcoyne and BJ Botha may well get the nod to start. Kilcoyne has put the disappointment of not making the Irish squad for the autumn internationals behind him and is in excellent form.
Penney will have to wait for confirmation on the extent of the knee injury picked up by Mike Sherry in Rodney Parade before a call can be made at hooker. Damien Varley has been pushing hard for inclusion in any case.
The fit-again Paul O’Connell looks set to team up with Donncha O’Callaghan once again in the second row. This weekend’s game comes a week or two too soon for the likes of Donncha Ryan and Tommy O’Donnell. Peter O’Mahony looks set to start at number six, with James Coughlan at eight. CJ Stander might just get the nod at seven.