There was a time at Munster, a week on from a glamorous away day in Toulouse when the resumption of league action and a trip to Italy would have been treated with that “after the Lord Mayor’s show” level of disinterest. Not anymore.
If anything, Saturday’s BKT United Rugby Championship meeting with Benetton in Treviso represents as much of a litmus test of Munster’s development this season as last Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup pool finale at the home of the French giants.
There is plenty at stake in this meeting of the URC’s sixth and seventh-placed teams, Benetton starting the weekend a point ahead of a final push for an end-of-season play-off berth but Munster will have to advance their claims without the reassuring presence of nine frontline players in their ranks.
Captain Peter O’Mahony, Tadhg Beirne, Craig Casey, Gavin Coombes, Jack Crowley, Keith Earls, Dave Kilcoyne, and Conor Murray are all unavailable on Ireland duty at their pre-Six Nations training camp in Portugal while head coach Rowntree is left further short-handed by the ankle injury sustained by in-form full-back Mike Haley during the 20-16 loss at Toulouse.
The result is eight changes from the Toulouse game and one positional switch to a side that will be skippered by Niall Scannell.
The hooker and lock Jean Kleyn are the experienced heads in an otherwise youthful pack, their leadership crucial if Munster are to continue a 13-match winning run against the Treviso side, as is that required of Joey Carbery, who starts at fly-half when he might have expected to be with Ireland on the Algarve this weekend.
Carbery’s omission should be to Munster’s gain as he belatedly wins his 50th Munster cap, more than four years after his arrival from Leinster but it will be another examination of the province’s direction of travel under Rowntree’s new coaching ticket if the fly-half, hooker and lock can lead this relatively inexperienced team to what could be a significant away win, albeit against a Benetton side missing 15 Italy squad members.
The positional switch sees Shane Daly move from wing to full-back in the absence of Haley while left-wing Liam Coombes, inside centre Malakai Fekitoa and scrum-half Paddy Patterson come into the backline. Loosehead prop Josh Wycherley, tighthead Roman Salanoa, flanker Jack O’Sullivan and No.8 Alex Kendellen are the fresh faces in the pack, as is lock Fineen Wycherley, set to make his first appearance since October 1, following a shoulder injury.
Ben Healy’s presence as back-up fly-half after a week of training with Scotland is also welcome as he waits for his 50th Munster appearance. He joins a bench containing academy forwards Mark Donnelly, Cian Hurley and Ruadhán Quinn.
John Ryan’s second spell with Munster has come up a week short, however. The Corkman was due to make his 206th appearance before joining the Chiefs in New Zealand at the end of his short-term contract but the tighthead is unavailable due to family reasons.
R Smith; I Mendy, M Zanon, F Drago, M Bellini; J Umaga, D Duvenage - captain; N Tetaz, S Maile, T Pasquali; M Lazzaroni, R Favretto; G Pettinelli, A Izekor, H Time-Stowers.
B Bernasconi, T Gallo, F Alongi, N Piantella, C Wegner, B Steyn, M Albanese, M Watson.
S Daly; C Nash, A Frisch, M Fekitoa, L Coombes; J Carbery, P Patterson; J Wycherley, N Scannell - captain, R Salanoa; J Kleyn, F Wycherley; J O’Sullivan, J Hodnett, A Kendellen.
D Barron, M Donnelly, S Archer, C Hurley, R Quinn, N Cronin, B Healy, R Scannell.
Ben Blain (Scotland).