As Bloemfontein’s Toyota Cheetahs meet Ulster at Ravenhill to underscore the revamp of a competition widely viewed as a poor relation to the moneybags in England and France, Munster kick off their campaign at Musgrave Park this evening (7:35pm) against a Treviso outfit renamed Benetton Rugby and with a spring in their step after some impressive summer recruitment.
Highlanders fly-half Marty Banks and Crusaders back rower Whetu Douglas have boosted the Italians’ ranks and will be making their competitive debuts in Cork while Munster will have some interesting and potentially exciting additions themselves as the Reds attempt to put their heavy Pro12 final defeat to Scarlets in Dublin last May behind them.
Chris Farrell makes his entrance in a midfield partnership with Jaco Taute following the Irishman’s switch from Grenoble while scrum-half James Hart, arriving from Racing 92, and former England U20 prop Ciaran Parker, a later summer signing from Sale Sharks, are in line for debuts off the bench.
There are also first competitive starts for Academy forwards Liam O’Connor, at prop, and Sean O’Connor at blindside flanker while the presence of hooker Mike Sherry on the bench after a 16-month injury absence is an additional bonus.
The returning JJ Hanrahan and another new signing, South African lock Gerbrandt Grobler will miss the big kick-off through injury, as will Munster’s growing contingent of Lions and Ireland internationals following summer tours, a sure sign that Munster are heading in the right direction having topped the league table last season.
It all adds to the usual optimism and anticipation that grips sports fans everywhere on the eve of a season and will be prevalent among the near-8,000 capacity crowd this evening, but for many among the Munster faithful there will also be a degree of trepidation. For the pending departure of director of rugby Rassie Erasmus casts a shadow over the entire proceedings and will do so until suitable replacements are found for him and his defence coach Jacques Nienaber, who is also heading back to the South African Rugby Union just 18-months into their respective three-year contracts.
The noises from Erasmus at last week’s Pro14 launch, and from the coaches and players put before the media this week and to be left behind to soldier on when the head man goes at the latest in December, suggest that all remains amicable and that their professionalism dictates everyone keeps calm and carries on and perhaps that is as it should be. Yet one wonders how long this situation can continue as Munster’s season unfolds without it threatens to undermine the whole campaign.
Forwards coach Jerry Flannery insists those concerns have been resolved in his mind by the attitude of the players through pre-season, particularly the forwards he was promoted from scrum coach to oversee. Not all have been available to him for as long as he would have wished, owing to those welcome Test call-ups in Japan and the late arrivals of Lions’ CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony and new signing Grobler, but the former hooker has been impressed by those he has worked with throughout the 10-week pre-season.
“Since we’ve come together the players have really taken ownership,” Flannery said. “A lot of people try and make this thing about Rassie, that it’s all Rassie. But Rassie created an environment where the players are very much empowered to run it and we’re lucky in that the age profile in this group, there’s players stepping into that role.
“There’s no-one you can say well, ‘there’s your Paul O’Connell or Ronan O’Gara’, they’re not in this squad, there are no players of that age profile but there are players, we’ve a British & Irish Lions captain now, CJ’s captained Munster in the past, Billy Holland has captained Munster and Niall Scannell, Rhys Marshall and Mick Sherry, these are all guys with leadership qualities themselves.”
“We’re going to make mistakes , it’s whether we can keep winning and learn from those mistakes each week.
“If the mistakes are so big that they’re actually costing us games well then you’ve got the mix wrong in pre-season but I’m reasonably confident going into this season now that we can learn as we go through it because that’s how we went last year. But teams probably weren’t expecting as big a challenge from us last year either.”
A Conway; D Sweetnam, C Farrell, J Taute, A Wootton; T Bleyendaal – captain, D Williams; L O’Connor, R Marshall, S Archer; J Kleyn, B Holland; S O’Connor, T O’Donnell, J O’Donoghue.
M Sherry, B Scott, C Parker, F Wycherley, R Copeland, J Hart, I Keatley, D Goggin.
I McKinley; A Esposito, T Benvenuti, T Allan, E Gori; M Banks, T Tebaldi; F Zani, L Bigi, S Ferrari; D Budd – captain, M Lazzaroni; F Minto, S Negri, W Douglas.
E Makelara, C Traore, M Riccioni, F Ruzza, A Steyn, G Bronzini, A Sgarbi, A Buondonno.
I Davies (Wales)