Munster have the best record of the Irish provinces on the opening day of the league and Johann van Graan will be hoping to maintain that when they kick off their PRO14 campaign at home to the Cheetahs today at Thomond Park.
Munster have been victorious in 14 opening-day fixtures in the 17 years of the competition and while today’s start can hardly be described as a new era, there is a certain freshness to the encounter.
It is, of course, Johann van Graan’s first opening day fixture and it will be interesting to see what mark he has put on the squad during his first summer in Limerick, having taken over from Rassie Erasmus last November.
The player-welfare programme means that it will be a few weeks before the internationals return and before Munster fans get a chance to see Tadhg Beirne in action since his move from Scarlets.
But the surprise inclusion of Joey Carbery on the bench adds substantially to this opening fixture, with new signings Mike Haley and Arno Botha also making their debuts.
Academy product and Ireland sevens player Shane Daly on the left wing is another debutant while Neil Cronin, younger brother of Irish hooker Shane, will make his first start for the province, three-and-a-half years after his last outing for Munster.
That came off the bench against Connacht in March 2015, his fourth appearance as a replacement. But he has only amassed a total of 15 minutes on the field in those appearances and today clearly represents a major step-up for the 25-year old Garryowen player.
Munster, of course, have already decided to go outside their scrum-half resources to find cover for the injured Conor Murray who faces an unspecified period on the sideline with a neck injury.
The signing of Alby Mathewson for four months, a 32-year with five appearances for the All Blacks, is hardly a vote of confidence in Cronin, James Hart and academy player Jack Stafford.
The arrival of the Cheetahs means that Munster have played teams from all five countries in the competition on the opening day and will be hoping to kick off their campaign with a win for the fourth year in a row.
The only home defeat at the outset of a season came in Anthony Foley’s first game in charge when Edinburgh pipped them 14-13 in 2014, while trips to Cardiff (2006) and Ospreys (2004) were the only other occasions when they lost their first fixture.
It seems hard to believe that Munster and Leinster clashed on the opening day in 2003 but both fielded understrength teams at a time when Ireland were preparing for the World Cup. Van Graan said that the Cheetahs remain a bit of an unknown quantity heading into their second season in the PRO14, having made a lot of alterations to their squad during the summer.
They have played two games in the Currie Cup and they have mixed their side.
“They have lost quite a few of their senior players, but they have gotten quite a few guys into their team. It is the first league game of the season, so obviously their focus has gone away from Currie Cup, it is more towards the PRO14.
“Their coach Franco Smith is a good friend of mine. We met up at the PRO14 launch. He said last season they were caught with their pants on their knees a bit in terms of the wet weather and the northern hemisphere conditions, they would have learned a lot from that experience.
“But that is really not our concern, it is the performance that we want. We expect a big performance from them and we want to kick off well,” said van Graan as they bid to extend a run at Thomond Park which has seen them lose just once there — against Leinster last Christmas — since February 2017.
M Haley; D Sweetnam, D Goggin, R Scannell, S Daly; JJ Hanrahan, N Cronin; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, J Ryan; J Kleyn, B Holland; D O’Callaghan, T O’Donnell, A Botha.
R Marshall, B Scott, S Archer, D O’Shea, G Coombes, J Hart, J Carbery, S Arnold.
M Jaer; R Maxwane, B Janse van Rensburg, N Lee, W Small-Smith; T Schoeman, S Venter; O Nche, J du Toit, L de Bruin; J Basson, JP du Preez; J Pokomela, O Mohoje, J Wiese.
J Dweba, C Marais, A Coetzee, W Steenkamp, A Davis, T Meyer, E Stapelberg, Eksteen.
D Jones (WRU).