The inclusion of seven players in Ireland’s 23-man squad against Canada tomorrow along with the absence of several others means that Munster will be severely depleted when they take on the powerful Maori All Blacks at a sold-out Thomond Park tonight.
While there is delight in the province that Jack O’Donoghue and Billy Holland will earn their first caps at the Aviva and there has been a call-up as well for Keith Earls and captain Peter O’Mahony to start with Dave Kilcoyne, John Ryan and Donnacha Ryan on the bench, it still leaves the Tommy O’Donnell captained Munster with a mountain to climb if they are to maintain a proud record against overseas touring teams.
Furthermore, Simon Zebo, Conor Murray and CJ Stander are being kept back for next week’s monumental rematch against New Zealand and perhaps the most disappointing aspect of all is the omission of out-half Tyler Bleyendaal for tonight’s clash.
It appears that director of rugby Rassie Erasmus is being protective of the New Zealander given his long list of injury problems since he arrived over two years ago and his importance to the team on the major competitive occasions.
Many of the 26,000 spectators, however, may feel somewhat short-changed by the call.
Erasmus has made four changes from the side that beat the Ospreys 33-0 last week. James Cronin returns from suspension to replace Kilcoyne at loose head prop; John Madigan comes into the second-row for Robin Copeland who switches to number eight in place of O’Donoghue and Conor Oliver is called up instead of O’Mahony. The one change in the backline sees Ian Keatley in the number ten slot for Bleyendaal.
Three players, new signing Te Aihe Toma, a New Zealand born scrum-half, and academy forwards Sean O’Connor and John Foley, are in line to make their first Munster appearances.
O’Connor, captain of a Rockwell Munster Schools Cup winning side a couple of years ago, was a member of the Irish team that defeated New Zealand in the U20 World Cup last summer. In all, five members of the academy are involved in tonight’s game.
While it is regrettable that so many leading players are absent, many in the full house will have vivid memories of thrilling games in similar circumstances against New Zealand in 2008 and Australia in 2010 when Munster came within two points (16-18) of the All Blacks and actually defeated the Wallabies 15-6.
Those outstanding performances will stand to the present side which can again rely on massive support from the stands and terraces.
While the Maori may be a little short of international standard, they are still a mighty force, inspired by a proud culture and tradition and packed with a whole host of players with serious ambitions of becoming full All Blacks and a few who have already worn the famous jersey. They have come here on the back of a 54-7 thumping of the US Eagles last week and have strengthened their side still further by making seven changes.
“It is going to be a hell of a challenge,” acknowledges Erasmus.
“We have seen what they did to the USA. I just know from history, coaching a lot against those kinds of boys, that they are wonderful attacking players with great physicality and outstanding skills. We have analysed them and we will try our best to beat them. There is nothing special planned for them or anything like that. In all departments they are very strong.” The Maori regard the Munster game as the highlight of their tour and the one they would like to win most of all. Head coach Colin Cooper desperately wants to add the Munster scalp to those the Maori have taken over the years including Ireland and the Lions.
“This match is huge for us,” he agrees. “I think every player at some stage in their career would like to play Munster at Thomond Park. We have seen the passion of the people here.
The stadium is sold out and the match is coming immediately after Ireland beating the All Blacks for the first time so the atmosphere is certainly going to be very special. It’s got everyone hummed up and will be a mighty contest.”
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