Guinness PRO14 - Cardiff Blues v Munster
With Simon Zebo set to leave Ireland this summer and join Racing 92 in France, securing the future of both an experienced full-back in Irish international Conway, 26, and Fitzgerald, 22, represented a good day’s business for Munster yesterday as head coach Johann van Graan named his squad before departing for the Welsh capital.
Conway, currently rehabbing a knee injury which is keeping him out of Joe Schmidt’s Six Nations squad, has signed a two-year deal which will keep him in red until the summer of 2020, while academy graduate Fitzgerald has extended his development contract for a further season having made three senior appearances.
There was further good news for van Graan yesterday when he was able to name fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal among his replacements for the Cardiff clash. The New Zealander, who has now qualified for Ireland after three years of residency, had been battling a neck injury suffered in Champions Cup first round pool game at Castres last October but Munster’s patience in the playmaker has been rewarded with a return to full fitness.
Today’s game also features a first start for South African lock Gerbrandt Grobler as van Graan’s promise to utilise his entire squad across the four PRO14 games during the Six Nations window has seen him make 10 changes to the side that scored a 33-5 bonus-point victory at home to Zebre in Limerick last Saturday.
Munster’s decision, approved by the IRFU, to sign Grobler, who had served a two-year doping suspension served earlier in his career, provoked controversy when he was finally made available for selection last month.
His recovery from a serious ankle injury suffered in pre-season saw him first feature for Munster A and then a senior debut off the bench against Zebre last week, when his introduction received a warm reception from the small Thomond Park crowd, following a statement of support from the province the previous day.
Now comes a first start in the Munster second row along Darren O’Shea as Jean Kleyn drops to the bench and Billy Holland is rested.
There will be Munster history made in the back row where Jack O’Donoghue has been named to captain the side for the first time, the 24-year-old becoming the first Waterford player to captain his province in the professional era. O’Donoghue starts at blindside flanker in a back row also featuring Chris Cloete at openside and Robin Copeland continuing at No.8.
Dave Kilcoyne, Rhys Marshall and Stephen Archer all return to the starting XV to face a Blues front row boasting a combined 219 international caps as Tongan prop Taufa’ao Filise, the only change to a team which beat the Cheetahs last weekend, joins Welsh veterans Matthew Rees and team captain Gethin Jenkins.
Munster’s backline sees a first start of the season for wing Ronan O’Mahony following a serious leg injury sustained last May in a back three also including Fitzgerald, whose selection sends Zebo to the bench, and Darren Sweetnam.
The midfield partnership of Rory Scannell, released from Ireland camp, and Sammy Arnold is reunited for the first time since January 1 while Ian Keatley, a replacement for JJ Hanrahan last week partners Duncan Williams at half-back.
Van Graan is wary of a Cardiff side in form and at close to full strength given the high number of Scarlets players occupying Wales jerseys.
Only Josh Navidi and Gareth Anscombe are on international duty while Sam Warburton and Alex Cuthbert are among the Welsh injuries. That did not stop Danny Wilson’s side doing Munster a favour by beating the Cheetahs 25-20 at the Arms Park last weekend, strengthening the Irish side’s hold on second place in Conference A by increasing their lead over the South Africans to seven points with seven rounds remaining.
“If you look at the past few weeks they have been playing very good rugby,” van Graan said. “Good set-piece, what the do around the lineout with Nick Williams, you know, when do they maul, when do they get the ball to their powerful ball carriers?
“Their kicking game is the thing that stands out for me. They kick on front-foot ball so it’s very difficult for your back three when to be up and when to be back and especially on that pitch, once you hit grass that ball goes into touch.
“So that’s going to be a tough game to win for us. We’re really going to have to play well to get a result there.
“You need to perform. Anybody can beat anybody in this competition whether you are the champions or the bottom team so you need to pitch up every week to get a result.
“If you just look at the Cheetahs game, the Cheetahs were 10-0 up and then the complexion of the game changed a whole lot, so a lot depends on the day. At half-time, especially for this team, it is very important to adapt to a whole lot of factors.”
R Williams; A Summerhill, G Smith, R Lee-Lo, O Lane; J Evans, L Williams; G Jenkins (capt), M Rees, T Filise; George Earle, Seb Davies; M Cook, E Jenkins, N Williams.
K Myhill, R Gill, D Lewis, J Turnbull, O Robinson, T Williams, S Shingler, R Edwards.
S Fitzgerald; D Sweetnam, S Arnold, R Scannell, R O’Mahony; I Keatley, D Williams; D Kilcoyne, R Marshall, J Ryan; G Grobler, D O’Shea; J O’Donoghue (capt), Chris Cloete, R Copeland.
M Sherry, J Cronin, S Archer, J Kleyn, D O’Callaghan, J Hart, T Bleyendaal, S Zebo.
Stuart Berry (South Africa)