THE old guard and the new. Soon after veteran flanker Alan Quinlan departed the pitch to a rousing ovation from the Munster supporters on perhaps his last competitive appearance for the province, the PA announcer at Thomond Park revealed that 22-year-old Mike Sherry had been awarded the Man of the Match accolade.
With 211 Munster appearances to his credit, Quinlan has played almost 200 more times for the province than rising star Sherry. Two players at the opposite end of their playing careers and a further indication of a side in transition.
But all talk of transition will be put to one side on Saturday next when the Ospreys visit Limerick for a Magners League semi-final play-off.
Munster have lost their last four semi-finals, two in the Heineken Cup, once in the Magners League to Leinster last season and most recent of all in the Amlin Challenge Cup, the home side will be under pressure to deliver. There are those who question whether the province has lost its edge when it comes to pressure cooker situations.
Friday nightâ€™s clash with Connacht was an exercise in allowing Munster â€˜get back on the horseâ€™ ahead of the Ospreys return to Thomond Park. As semi-final opposition go, the Ospreys are hardly an easy proposition, even at home.
It will be the fifth meeting between the sides this season and memories of the Welsh side doing a number on the Munster scrum in the Heineken Cup in December remains fresh in the minds of the Irish provinceâ€™s supporters even though Tony McGahanâ€™s men gained part compensation with their gritty Magners League victory at the Liberty Stadium over Easter. But the stakes are higher on Saturday. There is no second chance, no game next weekend, this time round.
Munster coach Tony McGahan said: â€œThe set-piece is where the game (Ospreys) will be won. I think the encounters this season against the Ospreys proved they are a very strong set-piece side. Saturday is going to come down to that as all semi-finals and big games do.
â€œWe have selection decisions to make right across the park for next year, to be honest. A lot of players put their hands up this week. Next week is a winner-take-all, there are no second chances. We are at the end of the season.
â€œThe Ospreys are a good side. This is going to be our fifth meeting this year. We know each other well enough and that is always a difficult point.
â€œWhen you have two sides who know each other well and they have been very competitive every game so far this year, it will again depend on small margins and making sure you are getting on the front foot and continuing to knock away the breakdown defence area.
â€œAgainst Connacht, it wasnâ€™t hard to better a performance than the one against Harlequins. It has been a tough week for everyone concerned. I thought the players had a really dogged display about them and they hung in there.â€
Coach McGahan was impressed with how Man of the Match Mike Sherry performed in his 14th Magners League appearance.
â€œMike Sherry has forced his way in there,â€ Tony McGahan pointed out. Some of his early selections were based on injuries to Jerry (Flannery) and Denis (Fogarty). Mike has applied himself well and he is another young man who has taken his opportunities. This was his first 80 minutes under his belt for a little while and I thought he was tremendous. He carried strongly and added to the set-piece. He had a really industrious game.â€
SCORERS- Munster 22 (Simon Zebo, Alan Quinlan, Doug Howlett try each, Ronan Oâ€™Gara one pens, two cons); Connacht 6 (Ian Keatley two pens)
MUNSTER - Felix Jones; Doug Howlett, Johne Murphy, Danny Barnes, Simon Zebo; Ronan Oâ€™Gara, Tomas Oâ€™Leary; Marcus Horan, Mike Sherry, John Hayes; Donnacha Ryan, Paul Oâ€™Connell (Capt); Alan Quinlan, Niall Ronan, Denis Leamy. Replacements: Peter Stringer for Oâ€™Leary (50 mins), Wian du Preez for Horan (53 mins), Denis Hurley for Zebo (56 mins), Stephen Archer for Hayes (60 mins), Tommy Oâ€™Donnell for Leamy (65 mins), Paul Warwick for Jones (45-54 mins, 72 mins), Ian Nagle for Quinlan (72 mins).
CONNACHT - Gavin Duffy; Brian Tuohy, Eoin Griffin, Miah Nikora, Fionn Carr; Ian Keatley, Frank Murphy; Brett Wilkinson, Sean Cronin, Jamie Hagan; Mike McCarthy, Bernie Upton; Andrew Browne, Johnny Oâ€™Connor (Capt), John Muldoon. Replacements: Troy Nathan for Tuohy (injured, 44 mins), Cillian Willis for Murphy, Dylan Rogers for Hagan (both 67 mins).
REFEREE- David Wilkinson (IRFU).
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