Asked if he would mix and match his teams over the next few weeks with a view to giving their best against the two Irish provinces, Foley insisted: “No, we will focus on Zebre and make sure we try and get a result in Thomond Park on Friday. That’s how important this result is to us. There is pressure on everyone. Zebre are coming here to try and stay ahead of Treviso. The Irish teams are jostling for position. We all want to get into the top four, the top six”.
In making no fewer than nine changes from the side that disappointed so badly in Cardiff on Friday last, Foley has called up Donnacha Ryan, Tommy O’Donnell, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo and included Conor Murray and C J Stander among the replacements. Interestingly, Foley is fielding an all-Irish 23-strong squad.
Stephen Archer comes in for his first start after a long-term injury absence at tight-head prop while Donnacha Ryan partners Billy Holland, who retains the captaincy, in the second-row. Tommy O’Donnell joins Jack O’Donoghue and Dave O’Callaghan in the back-row.
The fit-again Tomas O’Leary links up with Johnny Holland in a new half-back line-up. Holland has been building up game time and sconfidence in the Ulster Bank League with Cork Constitution and demonstrated his class with a couple of impressive cameo appearances against the Dragons and Cardiff, having been sidelined by a serious hamstring injury.
Saili’s omission is down to a minor shoulder injury he sustained in training this week, while the inclusion of Rory Scannell is something of a surprise given that he was reported to have suffered a concussion in Cardiff.
Keith Earls has been starring for Ireland on the wing but now reverts to the centre, a testimony at least in part to the successful way that Darren Sweetnam and Ronan O’Mahony have been manning the flanks. It looks as if Simon Zebo is being regarded more and more at national and provincial levels as a full-back and he starts there against the Italians.
Nine members of the Italian side hammered by Ireland a fortnight ago are in the Zebre line-up although coach Gianluca Guidi must continue without such familiar names as George Biagi, Marco Bortolami and All Black legend Mils Muliaina and several others. Nevertheless, Guidi is content to start with former Australian scrum-half and Italian wing Matteo Pratichetti on the bench.
Munster have won all seven previous matches between the sides. However, that doesn’t mean Zebre have been a soft touch, with Munster fortunate to scrape home by 16-12 when the sides met in Parma before Christmas. On that occasion, the Italians strongly disputed the decisive Munster try by Mark Chisholm.
That score came after a rolling maul. While it’s a tactic that has served the team well, the dwindling numbers of Munster followers would dearly like to see their outside backs contribute more to the team’s scoring potential instead.
Wonderful to meet everybody in Cork today. Thanks for coming out! Pictures & videos to follow soon... pic.twitter.com/QuhwNr3aMH— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) March 23, 2016
S Zebo; D Sweetnam, K Earls, R Scannell, R O’Mahony; J Holland, T O’Leary; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, S Archer, D Ryan, B Holland capt, D O’Callaghan, T O’Donnell, J O’Donoghue. Replacements – M Sherry, J Cronin, M Sagario, D Foley, C J Stander, C Murray, I Keatley, D Johnston.
K Van Zyl; L Sarto, G Bisegni, T Boni, G Toniolatti; K Haimona, W Palazzini; J Meyer, F Ruzza, J Cook, V Bemaba, Q Geldenhuys capt, D Christolini, A Fabian G Roan. Replacements – B Postiglioni, A De Marchi, P Cecarelli,G Koegelenberg, E Caffini, L Burgess, U Beyers, M Pratichetti
D Phillips (IRFU).