This may be a pool of death Munster are facing into as the 25th Heineken Champions Cup campaign gets underway this weekend but the fixture schedule has at least handed Johann van Graan’s side the most palatable of introductions, albeit away, with a trip to off-form Ospreys.
The plan, of course, for a team that has reached the semi-finals in each of the last three seasons, is that today’s Pool 4 opener against PRO14 bedfellows is not merely a stay of execution before Racing 92 and Saracens, the province’s twin nemeses of those recent campaigns come calling in rounds two, three, and four.
Johann van Graan will be hoping his side have the wherewithal to dispatch a struggling Ospreys side still missing the majority of its Welsh World Cup warriors in Swansea this evening and build some momentum and fluency heading into next weekend’s visit of Racing to Thomond Park.
The arrival of Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree to the head coach’s management team bodes well in that regard as van Graan has turned the disappointment of losing Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery into a real opportunity by recruiting a duo with proven track records.
The question is whether they can have had the immediate impact on their new charges that will be necessary to get out of this really challenging pool. Today’s trip to the Liberty Stadium will provide proof or otherwise that Munster are heading in their new direction at a canter rather than a crawl.
Losing three in-form players to injury in Test loosehead Dave Kilcoyne, fly-half duo Joey Carbery, and JJ Hanrahan is less than ideal and Munster’s squad depth is getting an early test as van Graan hands Jeremy Loughman a first European start in the front row. Tyler Bleyendaal starts at number 10 and has the experience of starting two of those three semi-finals, though, that experience, as his fellow Kiwi Steve Hansen pointed out in reference to Ireland’s at World Cup quarter-finals, is of losing twice to Sarries.
Perhaps Bleyendaal offers the litmus test for Munster’s progress under senior coach Larkham, the man entrusted with taking the province’s attack to the next level. If the fly-half can get a very good backline outside him fizzing, then the travelling Red Army will leave Wales with optimism for the campaign ahead.
Fail to fire, and we will be none the wiser. One senses the Munster coach is eagerly looking for signs also. Asked this week if his squad was in a better place now than this time last year, when they travelled to Exeter Chiefs, van Graan replied: “It’s a good question. We have obviously had some coaching changes. We had a World Cup to deal with and we have made one or two changes in the way that we play, and the way we look at one or two things.
“I wouldn’t say it is very different to last year. Last year we had a very tough fixture against Leinster away, which we felt we performed pretty well. We lost the game but we felt it was a good performance.
“Similar to this weekend it was a very tough Irish derby (win last Saturday) against Ulster. The Champions Cup has got nothing to do with what happens in the PRO14. New competition, it is a team we played a few weeks ago. We have had a bit of a taste about what they are about. But different players will be returning from our side and theirs. It will definitely be a battle.
“For us it’s an away game, and we have learned from the previous two years, you need to perform every single minute. Whatever you do in round one really matters. We drew the previous two years (at Exeter and Castres) and we’d love to get a win in round one but you get nothing for free in the Champions Cup.”
Munster make five changes to the side that defeated Ulster in Limerick a week ago, with Keith Earls starting on the wing for his first game since the World Cup while Bleyendaal replaces Hanrahan having closed out the victory last Saturday alongside scrum-half Conor Murray, promoted for the bench in a switch with Alby Mathewson. In the pack, aside from Loughman’s introduction ahead of James Cronin, there is a start for Tommy O’Donnell in a familiar back-row alongside captain Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander.
The reintegration of Munster’s Ireland World Cup contingent continues with Tadhg Beirne named as a replacement lock and in line to make his first Munster appearance of the season.
Ospreys have not pressed Wales captain Alan Wyn Jones into service for their first Champions Cup game since 2017-18 as Allen Clarke’s side aim to park woeful PRO14 form that culminated last week in home defeat to the Southern Kings. Clarke has reintroduced three Welsh internationals to his bench with lock Bradley Davies, prop Nicky Smith and scrum-half Aled Davies among the replacements but Munster look to have much the stronger matchday 23 and an away victory on the opening weekend must be considered a necessity with much tougher challenges ahead.