Munster are through to the final but key positions are still up for grabs

Joey Carbery's return shows the strength in depth of the Reds' panel now
Munster are through to the final but key positions are still up for grabs

Fineen Wycherley at Munster training this week. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland

MUNSTER face the Scarlets in the penultimate match of their long Pro14 league campaign on Friday night at Thomond Park.

While there may be nothing at stake, with Munster having already booked their Grand Final place, there are still plenty of subplots surrounding the tie to keep fans interested.

Last weekend’s win over Connacht means Munster are guaranteed top spot in Conference B now, which brings with it that coveted Grand Final berth on March 27.

With the pressure now off the hope would be that Munster can throw off the shackles and be a bit more expansive than usual in the last two games against the Scarlets and Benetton.

With nothing really on the line in this game, one of the most interesting aspects to look out for will be seeing how many more minutes the returning Joey Carbery gets on the pitch.

He got 16 minutes in his first game after a year out against Cardiff and then followed that up with 24 more minutes against Connacht last week. Munster have been at pains to stress that they are going to be very patient with Carbery, in terms of managing his minutes and the expectations around him. 

But if those minutes keep racking up then there is no reason why he should not be in a position to start the final, probably against Leinster at the RDS, in over two weeks time.

News has emerged this week that utility back Matt Gallagher is not far away from a return to action himself, so Munster’s options are increasing as they head into the crunch part of the campaign.

The Irish-qualified former Saracens man was really looking the part in Munster’s back three prior to picking up his shoulder injury. Whether he has enough time to break back into Johann van Graan’s starting side for the business end of the season remains to be seen.

Openside Chris Cloete suffered an ankle injury in the win over Connacht and is therefore not available this weekend, while Chris Farrell, Andrew Conway and Craig Casey have all returned to the Ireland camp, so they also require replacement as well.

Of course, this means opportunities for other players and with only two home games remaining, and with qualification for the Pro14 Grand Final already assured, that essentially means that the selections for the games against the Scarlets and Benetton will be a hodgepodge of young squad players seeking senior game-time.

Those players are badly in need of a run-out while looking to put their hand up for selection for the final, and players perhaps being given the opportunity for a final appearance in Munster red before they depart the club at the end of the season.

Jean Kleyn gears up for the Pro14 clash with Scarlets. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Jean Kleyn gears up for the Pro14 clash with Scarlets. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland

We already know that veteran second row Billy Holland is retiring at the end of this campaign, and that scrum-half Nick McCarthy is heading back to Leinster, but there remain question marks over the futures of the likes of JJ Hanrahan, James Cronin, Rhys Marshall, Tommy O’Donnell and Darren Sweetnam, with the likelihood being that most of that crew of quality Munster servants will be moving on.

Even with no crowds present over the next two weekends, you would imagine they would get the opportunity to sign off with one last appearance if they are indeed leaving.

Sentiment can only go so far, however, as these games present Johann van Graan and his coaching staff with a superb opportunity to give game time to up-and-coming young players like Jack Crowley, Jake Flannery, Sean French, Thomas Ahern, Roman Salanoa and Josh Wycherley. Their development has to trump the needs of departing veterans to have an opportunity to say farewell.

Opponents the Scarlets have had an average enough campaign, winning seven and losing seven of their 14 games to date.

Of course, these two sides opened the campaign in Round 1, way back on October 3 at Parc y Scarlets, with Ben Healy kicking a penalty from inside his own half with the last kick of the game to give Munster a memorable 27-30 win. 

Munster scored 20 points in the final thirteen minutes to win that game, and that stunning comeback proved the catalyst for a brilliant start to the campaign for Munster, which ultimately has catapulted them to the final in a fortnight.

Fans would not complain if they get as an exciting game as what transpired the last time the two sides locked horns in Wales last autumn.

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