Munster go in search of their eighth win in a row this evening when they take on Scarlets at Parcy Scarlets on an occasion to be marked by Rory Scannell’s 100th appearance for the province.
The Dolphin man is the youngest Munster player to have reached this auspicious landmark having turned 25 in December.
However, the celebrations will have to be put on hold because this is a game of the utmost importance for Munster. They hold a single point lead at the top of Conference A of the Guinness PRO14 over Glasgow Warriors and could hardly face tougher opposition than Scarlets at a venue where they have lost only once since September 2016. Moreover, with their nearest rivals Glasgow looking a sound bet to at least win at Zebre, there could be a change in leadership after the weekend.
Munster coach Johann van Graan sticks with his rotation policy, giving as many of his squad an opportunity for game time, making seven changes from the side that did well to win a on visit to the Ospreys eight days ago.
Bill Johnston and Alby Mathewson form today’s half-back partnership and there’s a rare opportunity for injury-prone Ronan O’Mahony on the right wing. John Ryan returns from international duty at tight head prop, with Jean Kleyn taking over again in the second-row from Tadhg Beirne alongside skipper Billy Holland. There is also a chance at number seven for Conor Oliver.
“We are playing against a quality side that has been playing exceptional rugby on their home turf over the last two seasons,” stresses van Graan.
“They have already beaten the European and PRO14 champions. You just have to watch the game last week (against the Cheetahs). After 20 minutes they were up 28-0. We are under no illusions about what awaits us in Llanelli. It’s a team that I respect a lot. They have a very good coaching staff and some exceptional players with a plan that suits them and they execute it well. We knew at the start of the season going to Wales for two weekends in a row that it would be a tough assignment.”
Kieron Fonotia leads the Scarlets for the first time, the Samoa international centre taking over the captaincy from Jake Ball. He skippers a side showing just one change from that which saw off Cheetahs 43-21 last week.
Five of Wales’ Six Nations squad members - Leigh Halfpenny, Wyn Jones, Ryan Elias, Rhys Patchell and Steff Evans - are included in the 23 with Halfpenny by a distance the most notable of all. The great Welsh and Lions full-back landed five conversions out of six and generally had a fine game on his return last week after a three-month gap as a result of ongoing concussion problems.
With five matches remaining in the regular season, the Scarlets sit fifth in Conference B standings with just five points separating second from fifth. It is little wonder that Wayne Pivac, who replaces Warren Gatland as Welsh coach next season, is anxious for the kind of result that would help him leave Llanelli with something to show for his endeavours.
“The start last week was everything we had hoped for and to score four tries inside 20 minutes was perfect and the bonus point wins keeps us right in the play-off place,” says Pivac. “We all know that Munster are going to be a very different proposition. They bring a lot of aggression in defence and a lot more line-speed as a lot of northern hemisphere teams are doing. That poses a different challenge and we are expecting more of an arm wrestle.”
L Halfpenny; I Nicholas, K Fonotia capt, P Asquith, J McNicholl; D Jones, K Hardy; W Jones, R Elias, W Kruger, J Helps, L Rawlins, J MacLeod, D Davis, U Cassiem.
M Jones, P Price, J Sebastian, T Price, T Phillips, S Hidalgo-Clyne, R Patchell, S Evans.
M Haley; R O’Mahony, D Goggin, R Scannell, D Sweetnam; B Johnston, A Mathewson; J Loughman, R Marshall, J Ryan, J Kleyn, B Holland capt, F Wycherley, C Oliver, A Botha.
K O’Byrne, L O’Connor, S Archer, D O’Shea, J O’Donoghue, T Bleyendaal, J Taute.
Mike Adamson (Scotland).