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CAN THE GUNNERS MASTER MUNSTER?

15 April 2004



Both Munster and Edinburgh progressed to the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup this season. But last weekend they enjoyed contrasting fortunes. Edinburgh went out with heads held high against the reigning champions. Meanwhile, Munster dispatched Stade Francais at Thomond Park, prompting many to wonder whether this will - at last - be the year when they do what they've been threatening to do for some time, and snatch Toulouse's crown.

An indication of the Munster team's popularity in these parts is that they have an allocation of 23,000 adult tickets for their Heineken semi-final against Wasps, yet there are still dark rumblings about why the Leinster Branch of the IRFU are selling a further 10,000 tickets that could otherwise go to deserving Munstermen and women. Will there be any room left for the odd Wasps fan in Lansdowne Road, particularly as Munster folk also seem to be buying many of the visitors' allocation of 2,000 tickets through Wasps RFC?

Meanwhile, the previous game between the Gunners and Munster, which took place when both were weakened during the World Cup, saw a 20-9 Edinburgh victory at Meadowbank. To secure the win, the Gunners had to put in a phenomenal 250 tackles, as Munster continually ran the ball up the middle. It was brutal but - on that occasion anyway - ineffective. Defence remains one of the top Gunners' strengths, with Toulouse only improving on their single try late in the game last week, when Edinburgh were throwing caution to the wind in an effort to overhaul the European champions.

With Brendan Laney, Chris Paterson, and Nathan Hines now apparently out for the rest of the season, joining Simon Taylor on the sidelines, Frank Hadden has been forced to change last weekend's side a little more than he would have liked. Ali Warnock is back at 10, after a sparkling display at the Melrose Sevens for Boroughmuir. His form, together with Ander Monro's fine performances this term and the displays by Mike Blair and Rory Lawson, suggests that a production line of quality young half-backs is developing in the capital.

Hugo resumes at left wing in place of Paterson, while the rest of the back division remains unchanged. In the forwards, Ally Kellock comes in to partner Scott Murray in the boilerhouse, while Andy Kelly will start at hooker, as Dougie Hall is out for a couple of weeks with a hamstring strain, and Joel Brannigan retains the starting spot at tighthead in preference to Craig Smith. Todd Blackadder's injury sustained in Toulouse was not as bad as initially feared, and the great man will be available for the game, as will Messrs Jacobsen, Di Rollo, and Webster. So a relatively strong Gunners side will make the trip to Cork.

The home team are resting a number of key men for their Heineken semi in Dublin next weekend. Half-backs Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer will be absent, as will be much of the pack, but a familiar face, Gordon McIlwham, will be looking forward to his joust with Jacobsen. The Munster backs, though, look a strong unit, and Edinburgh will want to ensure that they see little of the ball. Jim Williams, at 35, may have a view on whether young Blackadder, a stripling of 32, is up to another season of Celtic rugby. Happily from the visitors' point of view, the talismanic Aussie veteran will be watching his talismanic antipodean opposite number from the stand.

KEY PLAYERS:

For EDINBURGH, Todd Blackadder's leadership and tactical awareness will be key in a game where the Gunners will have to take every chance that comes their way, particularly in the absence of both Laney and Paterson at stand-off. MUNSTER's Rob Henderson is a pivotal figure for them, while Welshman Shaun Payne has, with Christian Cullen, given Munster an added edge in the backs.

ED'S VERDICT

From an Edinburgh point of view, the venue is an advantage. Munster have not lost in Limerick in the Heineken Cup since the early Jurassic period, but their record at Musgrave Park, and, indeed, their overall home record in the Celtic League this season, is not unblemished. In addition, this is not a winner-takes-all match, unlike last weekend. Whereas Munster are resting many front line players for their European semi-final, the Gunners know that a win would all but guarantee them Scotland's top Heineken seeding for next year. So a narrow away win, built on an edge up front, is on the cards.

TEAMS:

Munster: Cullen; Payne, Kelly, Henderson, Horgan; Holland, Reddan; Roche, Flannery, McIlwham, Hogan, Pusey, Keogh, McMahon, Malone. Replacements: Callaghan, Cahill, Hayes, Melbourne, Murphy, O'Sullivan, McPhail.


Edinburgh Rugby: Lee; Webster, Di Rollo, Philip, Hugo; Warnock, Blair; Jacobsen, Kelly, Brannigan, Kellock, Murray, Blackadder, Cross, Hogg. Replacements: Di Ciacca, Smith, Perrett, Strokosch, Burns, Dickson, Joiner


European rankings as at 12 April 2004: Edinburgh: 31 (down 1) Munster 13 (up 4) (http://www.eurorugby.com/index.php)

Referee: Nigel Whitehouse (Wales).

Kick-off: 7.30 pm at Musgrave Park, Cork (Not shown live on TG4)