MUNSTER'S former All-Black winger Doug Howlett believes the back-to-back fixtures against the Ospreys in the Heineken Cup are likely to 'make or break' the province's hopes of advancing to the knock-out stages of the competition.
In-form Munster hold a one-point lead over the second-placed Ospreys who visit Thomond Park this Sunday (1pm) in pool three.
Following a short, six-day turnaround, the sides face off once again at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday, December 18 at 3.30pm.
Munster's hopes of advancing to the knock-out stages of Europe's premier club rugby competition for a 13th successive season could well be determined by how Tony McGahan's men fare against the Magners League holders over the next two weekends.
All Black record try scorer Doug Howlett revealed that he ranked Munster's 2008 Heineken Cup final success over Toulouse at the Millennium Stadium as the highlight of his playing career.
The 32-year-old is one of only two players to have both Super 10 and Heineken Cup medals in his possession with wins in 2003 and 2008 respectively.
Doug Howlett said: "It is still early days as far as qualification for the quarter-finals goes and everyone in our pool is in with a hand so the next two weekends are vital.
"In my short experience in the Heineken Cup these back-to-back games can either break you or make you and I certainly want to experience another tournament final.
"I look back on that day at the Millennium Stadium as the highlight of my career because, although being capped by New Zealand and playing for the All Blacks was fantastic, this was special. That Heineken Cup final against Toulouse was a great event in a great tournament. The 2011 final will again be in Cardiff, but we are not looking that far ahead. We know we have our work cut out just to get out of the pool.
"I am really loving my time in Ireland with Munster. I cannot say enough good things about what a wonderful team they are to be involved with and what a tremendous experience and honour it has been captaining such a great team.
"With the internationals away with Ireland during the autumn matches that has also given the younger players opportunities to come through and show what they can do and we really do have some outstanding talent emerging at Munster."
Doug Howlett is likely to come up against two former All Black team mates when the Ospreys visit Thomond Par this Sunday. Wing ace Howlett, who scored a record 49 tries in 62 Tests for New Zealand, knows just how dangerous and influential back-row forwards Jerry Collins and Marty Holah can be.
"I have played a fair few games both with and against Jerry and Marty and it is clear to everyone that they have had a huge effect on the Ospreys," said the former Auckland Blues star.
"They are fantastic players and it is certainly no surprise to me that they are doing so well at the Ospreys.
"Collectively the Ospreys have one of the best squads in Europe - you just have to look at the names on the team sheet to see just how strong their squad is.
"I guess their greatest strength is the core group of players who have played in a lot of Tests together and when they come back from international duty and impose themselves at club level it is those periods of time together that really works for them.
"We know we are in for two huge matches against them and that we are really going to have to be at the top of our game home and away."
Munster, the Ospreys, Toulon and London Irish have each picked up a home pool three victory and winning on the road will be crucial to hopes of reaching the last eight.
Winger Howlett is delighted that Munster skipper Paul O'Connell has returned to competitive action in recent weeks.
"Of course we have missed Paul (O'Connell), he is such a key player and such an influential figure for any team - be it Munster, Ireland or the Lions," Howlett pointed out.
"However, he is a real professional and has stayed fully involved with the team and doing everything he can to be of value while he has been recovering from his injury and I know he is just itching to get back out there for Munster."