Having lost their opening league fixture of the season to Edinburgh a fortnight ago for a professional-era record-setting third successive Thomond Park defeat, Foley’s squad would be making unenviable history for the second home game in succession if they were to become the first Irish province to lose at home to this four-year-old Italian franchise tonight.
Yet the dismal start to the campaign has been eased by last week’s victory in Treviso and more distance from it will surely be gained this evening to repay the returning faithful who were forced to endure that desperate first-night loss to the Scots.
“Yeah, we let ourselves down,” Foley said of the Edinburgh defeat. “We didn’t bring a physical game to Thomond Park and you can’t expect to win the game if you don’t bring that aspect to a contest. So the boys will stew over that. It hurts, it burns a hole in you and you can’t wait to get out and try and quench that.”
The return of Ireland and Lions heroes O’Connell and Murray should ensure Munster hit the ground running as Paddy Butler and Denis Hurley make their seasonal debuts in the back row and midfield respectively while Dave Kilcoyne and JJ Hanrahan will be poised for theirs off the bench.
Foley has made seven changes from the side that negotiated a potentially tricky fixture in Italy last weekend. Full-back Felix Jones retains the captain’s armband from that 21-10 win while Simon Zebo starts his third consecutive game on the left wing and the Ireland duo will be joined in the back three by Ronan O’Mahony, who replaces Andrew Conway.
Stephen Archer makes way for BJ Botha at tighthead prop while Butler comes in at blindside flanker with CJ Stander rested after his three tries in two starts.
Murray’s first start at scrum-half will see him provide the experience alongside debutant out-half Johnny Holland, who replaces Ian Keatley with Hanrahan in reserve, while Hurley partners Andrew Smith in the centres as Ivan Dineen vacates the No. 12 jersey.
Foley has given Zebre all due respect, describing them as very physical and a hard team to shake, but with the Italians missing key players Brendon Leonard and Andries Van Schalkwyk to injury in last week’s defeat to Ulster at Ravenhill and still to gain even a losing bonus point this season, it is an improved performance from his players that will top of his priority list this evening.
“We went (to Treviso) and we made sure we were physical. We made sure we got good use of the ball in the first half. Our discipline was excellent in the first-half and unfortunately that fell away in the second half,” the Munster head coach said.
“I think at one stage in the second-half it was six penalties to zero so that is an area that we need to rectify and get an understanding of where teams are getting possession. The possession stats turned around dramatically from first to second half and it meant we were defending a hell of a lot more, and that takes away opportunities to launch attacks and get momentum into the game.”
Still, Foley will also look to build on plenty of positives from the trip to Italy as well as getting closer to his full complement of players with the European squad registration deadline looming next week.
“It’s getting there. We’ve a lot of inherited injuries that we need to get off the books. A lot of them are coming back now and hopefully over the next few weeks we’ll see a few more back. That just raises the competition within the squad and within that competition, performances will grow. That’s what we’re after and hopefully we’ll get that.”
MUNSTER: F Jones – captain; R O’Mahony, A Smith, D Hurley, S Zebo; J Holland, C Murray; J Cronin, D Casey, BJ Botha; B Holland, P O’Connell; P Butler, T O’Donnell, R Copeland.
Replacements: K O’Byrne, D Kilcoyne, J Ryan, D O’Callaghan, S Dougall, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, J Murphy ZEBRE: H Daniller; D Odiete, G Bisegni, K Haimona, G Toniolatti; E Padovani, G Palazzani; A Lovotti, A Manici, L Leibson; Q Geldenhuys – captain, G Biagi; Mauro Bergamasco, F Cristiano, S Vunisa.
Replacements: O Fabiani, A De Marchi, D Chistolini, V Bernabò, A Ferreira, A Chillon, G Garcia, Mirco Bergamasco.
Referee: Ian Davies (Wales).