Planet Rugby

Preview: Harlequins v Munster

04th April 2013 22:30

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Influence: Paul O'Connell

Four years on from Bloodgate, Harlequins return to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals to host two-time champions Munster at the Stoop.

Stuttering more than slightly in the league following three consecutive defeats to Exeter, Saracens and Gloucester, the English champions have become unfamiliar with losing runs in recent times - more accustomed to dominating opponents on a weekly basis than questioning what went wrong.

Sealing that first Premiership title last year was regarded as the moment Harlequins put the shame of the notorious Bloodgate scandal behind them, but in many ways it was also the building block for even greater achievements.

The skin still crawls at the mention of blood capsules and many remain from the side that took on Leinster four years ago, including Mike Brown, Nick Evans, Danny Care, Ugo Monye, George Robson, Nick Easter, captain Chris Robshaw and the man at the centre of the scandal, Tom Williams.

In a sense, Williams epitomises the Harlequins revival. Hard-working, understated but passionate about his side, the winger is enjoying his best season for the club thus far with nine tries already - the memory of his wink from four years ago almost forgotten.

Their losing run aside, Harlequins core strengths of a solid set-piece, efficient back-row and the balance of their half-backs mean multiple weapons are available to them. It is a well-stocked armoury that will leave them with fewer worries than Munster, who limp into London on the back of a hiding.

The Irish side had the wind knocked out of them by a 51-24 defeat against Glasgow last Friday. That kind of form is a real concern. No time is a good time to concede 51 points, but never do it before a Heineken Cup knockout game.

Munster's disintegration in the second-half leaves a worrying question mark over their mental state ahead of this weekend, not to mention concern that they conceded six tries.

In a disappointing season - Munster sit in 6th place in the RaboDirect Pro12, 20 points behind leaders Glasgow - coach Rob Penney needs a boost in his first season and with Paul O'Connell, Conor Murray, Peter O'Mahony and Simon Zebo back, there is always hope.

Munster arrive with nothing to lose - written off by many but hungry to make up for last week's embarrassment. It is a mentality that has served them well before in this tournament, just look at the legend of Gloucester in 2003 for reference.

Ones to Watch:

For Harlequins: Rested against Gloucester, England captain Chris Robshaw returns to the hosts' pack. Never short of a powerful performance, Robshaw appeared jaded when Harlequins visited Saracens two weeks ago and will have benefited from a week off to recharge his batteries.

For Munster: Few figures in the game are as influential as Paul O'Connell. Riddled by injury in recent times, the 2009 Lions captain is back and firing, bringing with him the experience of being at the core of Munster's two previous successful campaigns in this competition. Up against a physical Harlequins pack, O'Connell has to be ruthless.

Head-to-head: Two world-class tens with age not on their side, Nick Evans and Ronan O'Gara both know how to guide their respective sides into match-winning situations, not to mention how to kick their goals. O'Gara's recent form has been shaky, whilst Evans is prone to the odd off-day with his radar. There is no closer battle.

Recent results:

2012: Harlequins won 20-12 in Limerick
2005: Munster won 18-10 in Twickenham
2004: Munster won 15-9 in Limerick
2002: Munster won 51-17 in Limerick

Prediction: With Munster low on confidence and Harlequins hungry to end their losing run at home, home advantage should tell in this one. Harlequins by 8.

The teams:

Harlequins: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Tom Williams, 13 George Lowe, 12 Tom Casson, 11 Ugo Monye, 10 Nick Evans, 9 Danny Care, 8 Nick Easter, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 Maurie Fa'asavalu, 5 George Robson, 4 Olly Kohn, 3 James Johnston, 2 Rob Buchanan, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Joe Gray, 17 Mark Lambert, 18 Will Collier, 19 Charlie Matthews, 20 Tom Guest, 21 Karl Dickson, 22 Ben Botica, 23 Matt Hopper.

Munster: 15 Felix Jones, 14 Denis Hurley, 13 Casey Laulala, 12 James Downey, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ronan O'Gara, 9 Conor Murray, 8 James Coughlan, 7 Tommy O'Donnell, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Mike Sherry, 1 David Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Damien Varley, 17 Wian du Preez, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Donncha O'Callaghan, 20 Paddy Butler, 21 Cathal Sheridan, 22 Ian Keatley, 23 Ivan Dineen.

Date: Sunday, April 7
Kick-off: 14:00
Venue: The Twickenham Stoop
Referee: Jerome Garces (France)
Assistant referees: Neil Paterson (Scotland), Laurent Cardona (France)

by Ben Coles
@bencoles_

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