MUNSTER face the Cardiff Blues at the Cardiff Arms Park on Friday night.
It's their final away game of their long Pro14 campaign and a victory will have them on the brink of securing top spot in Conference B, which would bring with it a place in the competition’s Grand Final on March 27.
Munster have a nine-point lead over second-place Connacht with only four games left, so it would be a huge slip up to not finish top of Conference B at this stage.
Next weekend’s Round 13 tie happens to be a home one against Connacht, who are now the only side who can scupper Munster’s Grand Final ambitions, and technically Munster’s nine-point advantage could completely evaporate if they were to lose this weekend in Wales and be scalped next week by their western rivals.
With Connacht away this weekend to winless Benetton then we can assume they will get the job done, so Munster will be extremely keen to keep them at arm's length by seeing off Cardiff on Friday.
Munster beat Cardiff at Thomond Park back in October in a high scoring clash, on a scoreline of 38-27, with two tries on the night from Gavin Coombes and one each from JJ Hanrahan, Kevin O’Byrne and Jack O’Donoghue.
On the night Munster had particular trouble dealing with the physical centre pairing of Rey Lee-Lo and Willis Halaholo, although the latter has since become Welsh qualified and made his debut two weeks ago in the brilliant win over Wales in Murrayfield. The Munster defence won’t have to be concerned with him this time around, as he'll be on Six Nations duty against England.
The Blues have been a bang average Pro14 side this year, with them winning six and losing seven of their games in the campaign to date. Connacht had no trouble in rolling them over last Saturday night, by 32-17 at the Sportsgrounds, so even down all their internationals, Munster will feel confident of leaving the Principality with another vital away win.
Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Shane Daly and Craig Casey all starred in the 10-22 win over Edinburgh last Saturday night, but Munster head coach Johann van Graan has to plan for Friday’s visit to Cardiff without the foursome, as they have all returned to Ireland camp within Andy Farrell’s set-up.
Obviously, this presents opportunities for others to step up in their absence. With Munster playing six weeks in a row until the Pro14 season climaxes with the Grand Final on March 27, the strength in depth of the Munster squad is going to be really tested in the next few weeks, and every fit member of the squad is likely to be called upon at some stage of the run-in.
Emerging young winger Liam Coombes returns as an option after completing his return-to-play protocols in the past week, as Munster have to field two new wingers this weekend with Conway and Daly up in Carton House, and he will be in the frame with Darren Sweetnam and Calvin Nash for a starting berth.
The big news, however, centres around the potential return of a certain out-half.
A lot has been made this week of the fact that Joey Carbery was the ‘maor uisce’ at Murrayfield last weekend and the fact that he is no longer named in the rehabbing list that Munster release every week.
We are all fully aware that no chances are being taken with Carbery’s ankle, which has kept him sidelined for over a year now, and has caused issues for the best part of two years. We have now officially reached the stage where every Munster team announcement from now on will be accompanied by a quick scan for the presence of his name in the 23 players named.
If the Irish international out-half can get a few games under his belt then he can have a huge say on whether Munster can end the campaign with silverware or not.
If he does return before the end of the season too much will not be expected of him, given the amount of time he has been marked absent, but he would certainly present a very different type of option for van Graan either in the No. 10 shirt or perhaps as a deep-lying playmaker at full-back, a role in which he excelled while at Leinster.
A Carbery selection would certainly greatly increase the media attention for this clash anyway.