Dragons new head coach Dean Ryan has described this afternoon’s Guinness PRO14 visit to Thomond Park as “a massive challenge”. His forwards coach, Ceri Jones, went a stage further in calling it “the acid test”.
Nevertheless, both men have also expressed their belief that a new era is about to be born at the rugby hotbed that is Newport and that what would be only their second ever win at the Limerick venue is well within their reach.
“The boys are confident and looking forward to the start of the season,” says Jones, a prop highly regarded for this abrasiveness and effectiveness during his own playing days.
“Munster is a great challenge, they don’t get much bigger.
“They have a South African coach and that tells you two things – they are going to be set-piece orientated and they will be direct.
“But we know we are growing as a region and feel we are making strides.”
The former England number eight Dean Ryan starts a new career today at Dragons after spells with Gloucester, Worcester and the English Union and acknowledges: “We know there is no hiding place in Munster. Thomond Park is an incredibly hard place to go first up and we will need to play well to get anything.”
The Dragons have lived up to expectations in their warm-up games, most especially when handing the Scarlets a five try, 34-17 defeat.
They have three players, Aaron Wainwright, Ross Moriarty and Elliott Dee, in the Welsh squad for tomorrow’s World Cup game against Australia which has helped to build morale in the club.
They will be very much strengthened by the presence at out-half of the talented Sam Davies, who has arrived from Ospreys for whom he scored 153 points last season.
Even though Munster have a dozen players in Japan, they are still expected to take at least four points from this game.
They have lost just once to the Dragons at Thomond Park – back in March 2004 – and a number of the 23 will see today’s game and the next two in South Africa against the Cheetahs and Kings as the ideal opportunity to display their talent while the bigger names are away on World Cup duty.
In spite of all the absentees there is no shortage of experience in the group, with captain Billy Holland beginning his 13th season with the province.
New scrum-half Nick McCarthy makes his debut having arrived from Leinster and the back division also includes seasoned performers in Mike Haley, Darren Sweetnam, Rory Scannell, Tyler Bleyendaal and JJ Hanrahan.
Loose head prop James Cronin makes a welcome return as one of the six forward replacements and in this area, too, there is a nice blend of youth and experience with four academy members, Jack O’Sullivan, Liam Coombes, Diarmuid Barron and Keynon Knox, included.
“We used more than 30 guys in the warm-up games and from the weekend on, we play for points,” stresses head coach Johann van Graan. “Everybody is raring to go and obviously some are disappointed because they all wanted to play the first game of the season.
“But there are 21 rounds of this competition and we are looking for a solid start against the Dragons.”
MUNSTER: M Haley; D Sweetnam, R Scannell, T Bleyendaal, S Daly; JJ Hanrahan, N McCarthy; J Loughman, K O’Byrne, S Archer, F Wycherley, B Holland capt, J O’Donoghue, T O’Donnell, A Botha. Replacements – D Barron, J Cronin, K Knox, D O’Shea, C Cloete, A Mathewson, L Coombes, J O’Sullivan.
DRAGONS: J Williams; A Hewitt, A Warren, J Dixon, O Jenkins; S Davies R Williams capt; B Harris, R Hibbard, L Brown, J Davies, M Screech, H Taylor, O Griffiths, L Evans. Replacements – E Shipp, R Bevington, L Fairbrother, M Williams, T Basham, T Knoyle, J Botica, T Morgan.
Referee: Ben Blain (Scotland).