Munster look to nail down third spot in pool as summit moves beyond reach

Top-four seeding would earn Munster comfort blanket of home second leg in next round

Munster v Wasps, Thomond Park, Sunday, 3.15 – Live on BT Sport 2

Although Munster are already through this is still a hugely significant game in their season. Aside from reinforcing Thomond Park's status as one of the great fortresses of European rugby, come kick-off they'll know exactly what they will require and anything less than securing third place in Pool B would be an anti-climax.

The home and away double over Castres may not have been easy on the eye, but added to that thrilling win away to Wasps in their opening game it has left them well placed. A top-four seeding would earn Munster the comfort blanket of having their second leg in the Round of 16 at Thomond Park in the third weekend in April, which would be preferable, if they come up against, say, Sale or Clermont and presuming stadia will be permitted maximum capacity then.

However, Leicester being awarded a bonus-point walkover against Bordeaux-Begles not only takes top place out of the equation and probably the top two as well, but Cardiff's walkover against Toulouse sees Wasps slip to ninth and thus out of the knock-out picture. Hence, at the least, they will need a point out of this fixture.

Unsurprisingly, Munster retain only seven players from that uniquely configured starting line-up which pitched up in Coventry six weeks ago, as Johann van Graan makes three changes. As expected, Diarmuid Barron comes in for the injured Niall Scannell (meaning the try-scoring man-of-the-match from the win in Coventry, Scott Buckley is named on the bench) while Ben Healy is restored at outhalf after being unavailable last week and the horse power of Jean Kleyn in the secondrow.


Simon Zebo is also in line for his first appearance in Europe since rejoining from Racing 92 after being recalled to the matchday squad.

Wasps arrive on the back of hard-earned wins over previously unbeaten Leicester and, with 14, against European and French champions Toulouse.

However those victories, six days apart, have evidently come at a cost, with Dan Frost, Biyi Alo, Jimmy Gopperth, Tom Willis and Alfie Barbeary (man-of-the-match in both games) all ruled out of this match as well as the suspended Jacob Umaga.

Against that, Gabriel Oghre, Elliot Millar-Mills, Ryan Mills, Nizaam Carr and Thomas Young are all fit again, as is experienced scrumhalf Dan Robson. His presence will take some pressure from the shoulders of young Charlie Atkinson, who will likely assume the kicking duties in place of the evergreen and prolific Gopperth.

The miracle was that the first meeting even took place at all given both sides were missing 30-plus players between the jigs and the reels, and the manner two makeshift sides stretched the pitch and countered freely perhaps showed that sometimes less is more, as in less coaching. This return clash is unlikely to emulate some of the breathless action seen in Coventry, especially in that first half.

Munster have only lost two of their 26 home games against Premiership clubs in the pool stage of the Champions Cup, winning the other 24, and both of those were against Leicester.

A tad unnervingly, the first of those was a 13-6 defeat in the final game of the 2006-7 pool stages, a result which ended Munster's then proud unbeaten record in the competition at their Limerick citadel, condemned them to a losing quarter-final away to the Scarlets and possibly left psychological scars as well.

The edge may have been taken off their performance that day given they were already through, and while the same applies now the critical “outside noise” should counter against any complacency.

MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Ben Healy, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Diarmuid Barron, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O'Mahony (capt), Jack O'Donoghue, Gavin Coombes.

Replacements: Scott Buckley, Jeremy Loughman, John Ryan, Fineen Wycherley, John Hodnett, Craig Casey, Jack Crowley, Simon Zebo.

WASPS: Ali Crossdale; Marcus Watson, Paolo Odogwu, Ryan Mills, Josh Bassett; Charlie Atkinson, Dan Robson; Tom West, Tom Cruse, Elliott Millar-Mills; Elliott Stooke, James Gaskell; Brad Shields (capt), Thomas Young, Nizaam Carr.

Replacements: Gabriel Oghre, Rodrigo Martinez, Pieter Scholtz, Tim Cardall, Ben Morris, Will Porter, Rob Miller, Sam Spink.

Referee: Tual Trainini (France).

Head-to-head: P5, Munster 3 wins, Wasps 2 wins.

Betting: 1-7 Munster, 22-1 draw, 9-2 Wasps. Handicap odds: Wasps +10pts 8-11 Munster 19-1 Draw, evens Wasps.

Forecast: Munster to win.

Five of the best: Munster v Wasps previous meetings

October 19th, 1996 (pool stages), Thomond Park.
Munster 49 Wasps 22.

The day Thomond Park was established as a European fortress. Four days after a 48-18 loss away to Cardiff, a Munster side containing 12 local players eviscerated a Wasps side drawn from five countries. Munster scored seven tries through Anthony Foley, Mick Galwey, Killian Keane, Ben Cronin, Richard Wallace and Brian Walsh, as well as a penalty try, Keane also kicking 18 points.  
April 25th, 2004 (semi-final), Lansdowne Road
Munster 32 Wasps 37

Munster lost Ronan O'Gara within 30 minutes yet led 32-22 inside the last 20 amid a capacity sea of red. But Wasps punished missed touch kicks and tackles, and yellow cards for Donncha O'Callaghan and Rob Henderson, to seal a five tries to two win. "You wouldn't rub that game off your video," ventured Shaun Edwards. "An incredible game of rugby, probably the best I've ever seen."
November 10th, 2007 (pool stages), Ricoh Arena, Coventry.
Wasps 24 Munster 23

A heavyweight opening meeting between the two previous champions. Again Munster threw the kitchen sink at Wasps – Alan Quinlan leading the charge and the Lifeimi Mafi-Rua Tipoki combo engineering a try. But although a second by Shaun Payne, from O'Gara's chip, and the latter's third penalty had them 23-13 ahead after 45 minutes, they couldn't score again, discipline hurting Munster once more.  
January 19th, 2008 (pool stages), Thomond Park
Munster 19 Wasps 3

A critical bonus point in Clermont the week before meant Munster needed a win of any kind to top the pool of sharks and dethrone Wasps. In a grim tussle at a rainswept, partly rebuilt Thomond Park, Nigel Owens sinbinned Simon Shaw and Lawrence Dallaglio. O'Gara, captain for the day, kicked 14 points and set up Denis Leamy's decisive try.    
December 12th, 2021 (pool stages), Coventry BS Arena.
Wasps 14 Munster 35

 A madcap game between two Covid- and injury-ravaged sides, Munster's makeshift team of mostly Test players and debutants beat a reconfigured Wasps through tries by fullback Patrick Campbell (19), hooker Scott Buckley (21), Keith Earls and Andrew Conway. "I don't know how to rank it for you. I just know it was as special as I can remember," said stand-in head coach Ian Costello.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times