Even though counter attractions at Croke Park and Minnesota won’t do much to increase the paltry attendance at the venue for the Edinburgh fixture last week, it does look as if Rassie Erasmus and his staff are piecing together a frontline squad that should give a good account of itself today and in crucial encounters against Leinster, Racing, and Glasgow over the following three weeks.
Taute is a former Springbok whom Erasmus hopes will plug the gap left in the centre by the long-term injury to Francis Saili while O’Mahony is included in the replacements and will make his first appearance in a year some time during the proceedings.
The return of Zebo, Ryan, and O’Donnell could hardly be more timely while there are first starts for Alex Wootton on the wing and Darren O’Shea in the second row.
Surprisingly, there is no place in the 23 for the fit-again Robin Copeland who has made two highly impressive performances for Young Munster in recent weeks.
Given the manner in which they destroyed an admittedly second rate Edinburgh scrum last week, Erasmus and loose head prop James Cronin accept that a clash with Zebre means that the battle up front will be of a completely different nature this time.
“They are always going to be tough,” Erasmus acknowledged. “You see their results, they could have won most of their games bar one. They were unlucky against Dragons and against Connacht they were right in the mix. It’s going to be a nice physical one.”
That point is certainly not lost on James Cronin who starts on the bench as he continues his rivalry for the number one starting jersey with David Kilcoyne. He acknowledges that that to beat an Italian team, whether at international or PRO12 level, they must be contained at scrum time.
“Zebre have a good front row, I’ve come across them last season and while I wasn’t playing against them in the pre-season game in Waterford, they were a solid outfit down there as well,” said the Ballincollig man.
“Any time you come up against Zebre, you have your work cut out. They’re big, they come to scrum, they come to maul. Last time out they lost by a point to Cardiff and the week before they had Connacht on the rack so we’ll have to be well prepared for them.”
As for his rivalry with Kilcoyne for the number one jersey, he reflects philosophically: “It’s a case of who the coach sees fit to start on a Saturday. You know the other fella is going to come on with 25 or 30 minutes to go so it’s more of a partnership than anything because it’s very rarely if ever that a prop plays the whole game these days.
"It can be a small bit frustrating but you know that the other guy has done a lot of hard work and he is bringing the same endeavour. It might go against you one week and with you the next. Even though it is at home, this will be another decent challenge.”
It should hardly be a whole lot more than that. Zebre are already second from the bottom of the PRO12 although very unfortunate to have had their match against Connacht abandoned when 22-10 in front.
They have, however, lost to Munster in each of their eight meetings to date and in their last three visits to Thomond Park have had 16 tries scored against them and managed only one themselves. Furthermore, they have not scored a point in their last three visits to Irish provinces.
S Zebo; D Sweetnam, K Earls, J Taute, A Wootton; T Bleyendaal, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Casey, S Archer, D Ryan, D O’Shea, B Holland capt, T O’Donnell, CJ Stander. Replacements – N Scannell, J Cronin, J Ryan, P O’Mahony, C Oliver, D Williams, I Keatley, C Bohane.
E Padovani; G DiGiullo, G Bisegai, T Boni, T Giovanbattist; C Canna, G Palazanni; H Lavotti, G D’Apice, D Christolini, Q Geldenhuys capt, G Koegelenberg, J Sarto, J Meyer, F Ruzza. Replacements – C Festuddia, B Postiglioni, G Roan, J Furno, D Minnie, C Engelbrecht, T Castello, L Greoff.
D Jones (Wales)