Munster’s brave new world begins in Llanelli this afternoon with a difficult opening Guinness PRO12 assignment against Scarlets. The question being asked by the province’s followers is whether the new Rassie Erasmus regime will take a tentative first step or determined stride forward after the disappointments of past seasons.
Incoming director of rugby Erasmus, along with his fellow South African Jacques Nienaber as defence coach, will certainly need to hit the ground running against a potentially rocket-fuelled Scarlets backline if they are to start their debut competitive season with a victory.
The Welsh regions en bloc have underperformed in the league for so many seasons now, with Ospreys the most recent PRO12 champions in 2012 but they collectively pulled their socks up and none more so than in West Wales under Wayne Pivac.
It has been impressive enough to lure Lions centre Jonathan Davies back home to Scarlets from Clermont Auvergne and assured fly-half Rhys Patchell from Cardiff Blues this summer to augment a backline already featuring Gareth Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Scott Williams, Liam Williams, and DTH van der Merwe.
All of the above will feature today, although Jon Davies begins his second stint at the club from the bench.
Pivac does not have his two frontline Wales props available in Samson Lee and Rob Evans this weekend, nor openside flanker James Davies, Olympic rugby sevens silver medalist with Team GB last month. Yet former Scarlet, Wales, and Lions centre Scott Quinnell is relishing the rebirth of his hometown club.
“Getting them the ball has been an issue over the last couple of years because they’ve been beaten up, up front on a couple of occasions,” said Sky Sports rugby analyst Quinnell.,
“That Scarlets backline is absolutely incredible and they need a platform from the likes of Jake Ball and the back row because if they get on the ball they will be very very dangerous this year.”
There is certainly plenty of firepower there to put Nienaber’s new defensive systems at Munster to the test this afternoon — which makes the decision to give academy centre Dan Goggin a first competitive start at Parc y Scarlets at the heart of that defence all the more brave.
Rocked by the injury-enforced absence of Francis Saili until Christmas, Erasmus will start his reign already making do and patching together his first line-up, allowing Goggin to retain the 13 jersey he wore against Worcester in last season’s thumping pre-season victory in Cork.
Still 21, the Young Munster centre will join Rory Scannell in midfield and both coach and player hope he can follow his partner’s example by grabbing this opportunity with both hands as the Corkman did last season alongside Saili.
That Erasmus is prepared to roll the dice on another youngster is admirable and should be applauded. Too often coaches are criticised for being too conservative in their selections but the South African seems happy to take the risk and look on the situation as an opportunity.
“Somewhere this season, we are going to eat our words and say we were too clever and we made mistakes but we’re giving guys opportunities who might disappoint you or you might have thrown them in too quickly,” said Erasmus.
“We will make mistakes but then on the other end you will get a situation like Rory Scannell. I don’t think at the beginning of 2015 where anyone would have said he would have played so many games and been vital in a leader position in the group.
“It’s now an opportunity we grab and for us to have the courage to back guys who have come through the system and have shown the talent which they have at training sessions and warm-up games.”
Erasmus has made just one change from last weekend’s 52-21 hammering of English Premiership Worcester, bringing in Dave Foley to the second row as new signing from the Stormers Jean Kleyn moves onto the bench to await his competitive debut in red.
It means Tyler Bleyendaal is retained at fly-half to continue his comeback from the quad injury that restricted the New Zealander to five appearances in his debut campaign, the thigh problem having first emerged last October during the pre-game warm-up at Scarlets.
He returned to action eight days ago at Musgrave Park and came through with flying colours, much to the relief of a management team who later in the week were forced to mourn the premature retirement of Johnny Holland.
Bleyendaal gets his first start since December, leaving Ian Keatley on the bench, though the director of rugby was at pains to point out this week he has not made a decision on who is his preference at fly-half.
Erasmus will be hoping today’s seasonal opener provides some positive answers.
L Williams: DTH van der Merwe, S Williams, H Parkes, S Evans; R Patchell, G Davies; D Evans, K Owens – captain, W Kruger; J Ball, L Rawlins; A Shingler, J Barclay, J Macleod.
R Elias, W Jones, P Edwards, D Bulbring, T Beirne, J Evans, D Jones, J Davies.
S Zebo; D Sweetnam, D Goggin, R Scannell, R O’Mahony; T Bleyendaal, D Williams; J Cronin, N Scannell, J Ryan; D Foley, B Holland - captain; D O’Callaghan, T O’Donnell, J O’Donoghue.
K O’Byrne, D Kilcoyne, B Scott, J Kleyn, D Ryan, T O’Leary, I Keatley, C Bohane.
Lloyd Linton (Scotland)
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