Ordinarily, the absence of Dan Carter, Casey Laulala, Bernard Le Roux and Dimitri Szarzewski would severely disable any team’s equilibrium but, for the champions of France, there is strength in depth beyond the wildest dreams of an Irish province.
All Blacks legend Carter has not overcome a calf injury and will sit out his third straight game, although Racing are rotating their fly-halves with Remi Tales making way for Johannes Goosen following last Saturday’s narrow Parisian derby win over Stade Francais.
There are three further changes from that 29-22 home win for tomorrow’s return to Stade Yves-Du-Manoir, with Camille Chat starting at hooker in place of Virgil Lacombe in the continued absence of captain Szarzewski and Ben Tameifuna coming in at tighthead prop for Luc Ducalcon, who drops out of the matchday squad.
The other change to the backline sees former Munster centre Laulala replaced by Henry Chavancy while Irish scrum-half James Hart earns a place on the bench as back-up to tomorrow’s captain Maxime Machenaud.
While Carter is absent, Joe Rokocoko and Juan Imhoff will occupy the wings, despite waiting to hear their fates having attended a French Rugby Federation anti-doping hearing on Wednesday.
The New Zealand duo and Argentina wing Imhoff all tested positive for a banned corticosteroid following Racing’s Top 14 final win against Toulon in June, although Racing insist the pain-killing injections were administered in line with a therapeutic use exemption (TUE).
The Top14 title defence has got off to a slow start with the Parisians’ four victories all coming at home and their four defeats happening on the road.
As Racing’s assistant coach Ronan O’Gara wrote in his Irish Examiner column yesterday, the issue for the squad “isn’t getting used to being champions of France, it’s more can we deal with being champions”.
The distraction of the doping controversy surrounding Racing’s three frontline stars cannot have helped even if Rokocoko and Imhoff will occupy their wings today as the club looks to start their campaign to return to the Champions Cup final with a strong opening statement.
Munster need no introductions when it comes to Racing’s summer signing Leone Nakawara. With Glasgow Warriors, the Fijian lock was a constant thorn in the province’s side during the past few seasons, his power and athleticism matched with sublime handling and offloading skills. The potential to wreak havoc is unnerving.
Rassie Erasmus makes just one change from the starting XV which went down to Leinster in Dublin last Saturday and it is an enforced one, with Keith Earls still following return to play protocols following a concussion at the Aviva Stadium.
The Ireland star’s place at outside centre goes to South African international Jaco Taute, the short-term loanee from the Stormers who will make his Champions Cup debut a week after scoring his first try for the province off the bench.
With that the only change, Munster retain the same pack with loosehead Dave Kilcoyne successfully completing his return to play concussion protocols to take his place alongside Niall Scannell and John Ryan in the front row.
The backline will see fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal and wing Darren Sweetnam make their European debuts in the starting lineup, the former linking up with Conor Murray in the half-backs while the latter remains in a back three with Ronan O’Mahony and full-back Simon Zebo.
Taute’s inclusion means another new centre partnership in midfield for Munster this season, Rory Scannell starting at inside-centre while the bench could provide springboards for academy players Dan Goggin, as an outside back, and prop Brian Scott to make their European debuts.
Scott’s inclusion in his first Champions Cup matchday squad comes as Erasmus aims to cover the loss of James Cronin at loosehead following his four-week suspension for a stamp on Leinster’s Jamison Gibson-Park last weekend.
Munster travel to the Parisian suburbs still searching for consistency after a mixed start to life under director of rugby Erasmus and his new coaching set-up. Last weekend’s 25-14 defeat to arch rivals Leinster exposed some fault-lines, particularly in attack, whereas the tries conceded were down to individual errors that should be easily fixed.
Regardless, any momentum derived from three straight wins prior to that has dissipated and Munster need to click into gear quickly tomorrow or face a long, hard struggle to qualify for the knockout stages in their remaining five pool games.
Now in his third season at Munster, fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal finally makes his European debut, charged with decoding a defensive puzzle posed by his predecessor in the red number 10 jersey, Ronan O’Gara.
The half-back combination with Conor Murray is crucial and will need to step up after a sloppy kicking display handed too much easy possession back to Leinster last Saturday.
The onus is on Bleyendaal to boss this game and get his backline firing.