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Preview: Gloucester v Munster

10th January 2014 09:08

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SKY_MOBILE Conor Murray Munster

Returning: Conor Murray

Gloucester find themselves with a point to prove as they prepare to welcome Munster to Kingsholm for Saturday's Heineken Cup clash.

The Cherry and Whites have traditionally boasted one of English rugby's most daunting venues; feared and revered in equal measure.by those who visit.

But this season, "Fortress Kingsholm" has been breached more times than the average UK seaside town's flood defences, as Nigel Davies' men slipped to defeats in six of their nine home games to date.

It's been a maddeningly inconsistent domestic campaign so far for Gloucester, with good wins over Northampton Saints and Newcastle Falcons tempered by disappointing losses at the hands of London Wasps and Sale Sharks.

That general vibe of hot-and-cold, hit-and-miss rugby has unsurprisingly taken hold of Saturday's hosts' European effort too. Two wins from four games, and a frustrating Kingsholm defeat to Edinburgh leave them in second place in Pool 6.

In the backs, Freddie Burns continues to misfire, failing to make the cut for England's Six Nations squad despite the axing of Toby Flood. In fact, he's played so far below his usual standard at fly-half that Davies has often preferred to name Billy Twelvetrees - a centre by trade - in the pivot position.

Outside him, Jonny May is a serious threat when given attacking ball, but he will wind up something of a bystander should the home pack fail to provide that for him.

This is an eight that has come under fire this season for its lack of power and dominance in the tight. The twin signings of John Afoa and Richard Hibbard will surely more than shore up the Cherry and White scrummage next season; but for now, it remains a suspect area, and one the Munstermen will no doubt target.

Meanwhile Munster boss Rob Penney approaches the Kingsholm showdown knowing that a win would ensure his side top the Pool, and qualify for the quarter-finals.

The Pro12 leaders ran out comfortable 26-10 victors when the sides met in October, and barring an exceptional performance from the hosts, are favourites to record a similarly favourable scoreline this time around.

The back-row is a particular area of considerable strength for the province, with the likes of Sean Dougall, Tommy O'Donnell, CJ Stander and skipper Peter O'Mahony providing a dynamic, quick and balanced array of options.

Munster have shown with astounding regularity a knack of pulling off the seemingly impossible - especially on the European stage - characterised by fly-half JJ Hanrahan's fantastic last minute try to snatch victory in Perpignan.

Though he misses out on Saturday through injury, Hanrahan, in contrast to Burns, continues to impress with each passing week, and must surely be in the reckoning for Ireland's wider Six Nations squad, if not a place in a match-day 23.

Munster head into the clash off the back of a 29-19 defeat - just their third of the season - to an ever-improving Ulster side at Ravenhill, and will no doubt be thirsting for a chance to redeem themselves.

Penney has made six changes to the side beaten by Ulster with Conor Murray the most notable inclusion, winning his 50th cap in his first appearance since injuring his knee against Perpignan five weeks ago.

Hooker Damien Varley retains his place in the starting XV despite limping off at Ravenhill with a foot injury but it's not as bad as first feared and Varley is fit to start.

Aside from Murray, there are three other changes in the backs with Keith Earls, Johne Murphy and James Downey all returning to the side.

Earls is back on the right wing after missing out last week with a bruised shoulder with Downey, who missed out with an irritated groin, returning to partner Casey Laulala in the centres.

Murphy comes into the side on the left wing with out-half Ian Keatley and full-back Felix Jones keeping their places in the starting XV.

There are two changes in the forwards as BJ Botha and Dave Foley are drafted into the pack. It will be a a big day for Tipperary man Foley as it is his first appearance in the Heineken Cup.

Penney has gone for an international front row with props Dave Kilcoyne and South African Botha either side of Varley.

Foley is included after impressing off the bench against Ulster last weekend and he partners Ireland captain Paul O'Connell in the second-row.

The back row remains unchanged with O'Mahony, O'Donnell and James Coughlan in good form heading into tomorrow's Kingsholm encounter.

Simon Zebo is named on the bench as he returns to the squad for the first time since cracking a bone in his foot against Edinburgh in October.

Donncha O'Callaghan and Hanrahan are also amongst the replacements after their recent injury issues.

Meanwhile, Irish wing Shane Monahan will make his Heineken Cup debut against Munster as Davies makes six changes to the Gloucester team that started against Saracens last weekend.

In the back line, Jonny May moves from the left wing in to outside centre and Dan Robson gets the nod at scrum half.

Meanwhile, in the pack, Yann Thomas and Darren Dawidiuk are selected at loose head and hooker respectively while Gareth Evans, will start at number eight.

Evans replaces Ben Morgan who has battled to overcome a knock picked up against Saracens, and who will line up amongst the replacements. Also back in the matchday squad for the first time in several weeks is Tongan international Sione Kalamafoni, back after injury.

The teams:

Gloucester: 15 Martyn Thomas, 14 Charlie Sharples, 13 Jonny May, 12 Billy Twelvetrees (c), 11 Shane Monahan, 10 Freddie Burns, 9 Dan Robson, 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Matt Kvesic, 6 Matt Cox, 5 James Hudson, 4 Elliot Stooke, 3 Sila Puafisi, 2 Darren Dawiduik, 1 Yann Thomas
Replacements: 16 Huia Edmonds, 17 Dan Murphy, 18 Shaun Knight, 19 Tom Hicks, 20 Sione Kalafamoni, 21 Tavis Knoyle, 22 Rob Cook, 23 Ben Morgan

Munster: 15 Felix Jones, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Casey Laulala, 12 James Downey, 11 Johne Murphy, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Conor Murray, 8 James Coughlan, 7 Tommy O'Donnell, 6 Peter O'Mahony (c), 5 Paul O'Connell, 4 Dave Foley, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Damien Varley, 1 Dave Kilcoyne
Replacements: 16 Duncan Casey, 17 James Cronin, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Donncha O'Callaghan, 20 CJ Stander, 21 Duncan Williams, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Simon Zebo.

Date: Saturday 11th January
Venue: Kingsholm
Kick-off: 1800 (local and GMT)
Referee: Leighton Hodges (Wal)
Assistant referees: Gwyn Morris, Wayne Davies (both Wal)
TMO: Gareth Simmonds (Wal)

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