Heineken Cup: Thomond losing its fear factor
There was a time when teams travelled to Limerick for Heineken Cup assignments against Munster resigned to the prospect of defeat.
Reminiscent of Ireland internationals from the 1990s who spoke about being “beaten before we got on the plane” for trips to Paris, visitors to Thomond Park may have talked optimistically beforehand but their body language when they hit the pitch told a different story.
It is the reason why Munster’s record here (one Heineken Cup defeat to Leicester when qualification was already secured) is so daunting.
However, with Munster in a self-acknowledged period of transition, the mantle of impregnability is slipping. And, with last year’s European failures and the recession challenging the customary hot-house Thomond Park atmosphere, Northampton show up for this evening’s showdown (6pm) with genuine confidence.
“It's something to get really excited about,” says Saints coach Jim Mallinder. “Munster deserved to win those two games there (two seasons ago) and we deserved to win the game at Franklin's Gardens. We've strengthened our squad and we're a little bit more experienced.
“It's been good for us we've had a couple of games to get the (international) players back into our way of thinking, and they've been improving as the weeks have progressed.”
Last weekend’s excellent win away to Wasps has bolstered Northampton belief.
Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Vasily Artemyev make up one of the swiftest back threes in the competition, James Downey will truck it up in midfield, and their established front row of Soane Tonga’uiha, captain Dylan Hartley and Brian Mujati is on a mission to cow their opponents at source in the scrum.
While boasting a formidable line-up, Northampton will look at the Munster team-sheet and detect an air of vulnerability.
Alan Quinlan is retired, David Wallace and Keith Earls are injured while Donncha O’Callaghan, Dens Leamy and Tomas O’Leary all start from the bench.