The competition for places in the Munster back division is ramped up still further this week with the return of Darren Sweetnam for tonight’s Guinness PRO12 game against Newport Gwent Dragons at Musgrave Park.
The West Cork man was in flying form before his season was stalled by a knee injury against Leinster on St Stephen’s Day.
Andrew Conway is one of four players released from the Irish camp by Joe Schmidt but it remains to be seen how head coach Rassie Erasmus juggles the talent at his disposal once Keith Earls and Simon Zebo complete international duties.
Conway’s form has been outstanding and he will be a strong contender for both the 15 and 14 jerseys while Ronan O’Mahony won’t be easily displaced on the left wing after a series of fine performances highlighted by a man of the match, try-winning contribution in Edinburgh last week.
Erasmus has made five changes from that game. Alongside Sweetnam, Dave Kilcoyne, Tommy O’Donnell, Rory Scannell and Conway all start, having been made available by Schmidt. Out-half Tyler Bleyendaal retains the captaincy. Jaco Taute reverts to the centre after a week at full-back and will partner Scannell while Francis Saili has to be satisfied with a spot on the bench where he is joined by academy members Brian Scott, Conor Oliver and Dan Goggin and Young Munster’s Abrie Griesel.
The Dragons have been the poor relations of the four Welsh regions for far too long for the liking of the many passionate rugby fans in the Newport hotbed in South Wales. Head coach Kingsley Jones feels the pain as much as any of them and has named his strongest possible side for tonight in the hope of putting an end to their long losing run. It includes the return of a large number who sat out last week’s Anglo Welsh Cup defeat to Gloucester (24-13). The group contains skipper, flanker Lewis Evans who, along with wing Adam Hughes, signed a new contract with the Dragons earlier this week.
“It’s a very, very difficult place to go,” acknowledged forwards coach Ceri Jones. “It will be a huge challenge and we just need to go there and put in an 80-minute performance. We know we can do that and be competitive with any team in the league.
“We know the threats Munster will impose and we have prepared really well for them. We know what’s coming, so if we deal with that and then put our game onto the pitch, I am sure we’ll give a good account of ourselves.”
However, the current league table suggests there can be only one result tonight. Munster currently lead the way with 50 points, a massive 31 ahead of the visitors who have only the hapless Italian pair Treviso and Zebre behind them at the other end of the table.
Nevertheless, Munster need little reminding of how close they came to defeat when the sides met at Rodney Parade last September.
“The game is best remembered for the bizarre nature of Cian Bohane’s try which came as a result of a fumble over the Dragons line by Darren Sweetnam — but as luck would have it, the ball went back rather than forward! Even then, the Welsh lost possession just as they looked set to grab a match winning stoppage time try. When you are generally expected to beat a side, it does add to the pressure,” says Erasmus.
“On paper, from outside, it looks like this should be a win for us but we on the inside know this is going to be a really tough game, especially when you think we went there and with a lot of our internationals available, struggled to put them away.”
A Conway; D Sweetnam, J Taute, R Scannell, R O’Mahony; T Bleyendaal capt, D Williams; D Kilcoyne, R Marshall, S Archer, J Kleyn, D Foley, D O’Callaghan, T O’Donnell, J O’Donoghue.
K O’Byrne, P McCabe, B Scott, D O‘Shea, C Oliver, A Griesel, F Saili, D Goggin.
C Meyer; A Hughes, T Morgan, A Warren, P Howard; D Jones, T Knoyle; S Hobbs, R Bucklery, B Harris, M Screech, R Landman, O Griffiths, N Cudd, L Evans.
E Dee, T Davies, L Fairbrother, N Crosswell, H Keddie, S Pretorius, A O’Brien, S Beard.
M Adamson (Scotland).
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