MUNSTER have been boosted by the return of seasoned internationals John Hayes and Marcus Horan to the squad for Saturday’s Magners League opener against Italian newcomers Aironi at Musgrave Park (7.30pm)
Despite utility back Barry Murphy having suffered a succession of niggling problems, there is better news on the injury front with Keith Earls’ ankle injury unlikely to keep him out for much more than a month while Lifeimi Mafi will be ready for action within a fortnight.
The two experienced props have been named in a group of 27 players that also includes Denis Hurley, as coach Tony McGahan made just three alterations from the squad on duty against Gloucester last week.
Rookie backs Simon Zebo and Ivan Dineen make way, while just one front row forward, youngster Stephen Archer, loses out.
“We are lucky enough to have both back and they will get some time off the bench at least,” McGahan said yesterday.
Although the coach is certain to re-introduce Horan and Hayes, he is clearly happy with the way the Munster scrum performed in the recent friendly games against more experienced Leicester Tigers and Gloucester outfits.
“I think you’re going to see a different dynamic this year anyway with 23 in the (matchday) squad and clubs will have one full front row on the pitch and another on the bench. It’s going to be interesting to see how they will be used. We feel we need to give our guys a decent block of game time; how you do that is important but we have to consider everything.
“We were happy with the way things went in the friendly games. They were both really hard games; we wanted to give ourselves a tough marker, particularly in the set pieces. We got pushed around a bit in the early stages of the Leicester game but that was exactly what we wanted because it was a test, and we certainly felt that the first game helped us prepare for the second and led to a good solid display against a Gloucester side I feel will make some good strong claims to the Premiership in England this season.”
Mafi’s progress gives Munster another option in the near future. “He should be right within a fortnight,” McGahan said, before addressing the Earls issue.
“We had been protecting him at the back end of last season after his injury during the six nations; he was only training every three weeks to play every three weeks.
“To get back where he had a good pre-season only to pick up an injury by slipping off the back of somebody else’s boot was a bit frustrating. He goes back for another scan in 10 days to get a clearer picture, but happily we have been led to believe it’s a medium-level injury.”
McGahan is unlikely to make major changes from the side that defeated Gloucester but will surely start Mick O’Driscoll in the second row alongside either Donncha Ryan or Ian Nagle. The full back position is up for grabs between Felix Jones and the returning Hurley and the coach may stick with the Sam Tuitupou/Johne Murphy midfield partnership even if the former Leicester man lacks experience in that position.
One way or another, he is happy with Tuitupo over two spells of 50 minutes in the last couple of games. “Given he was coming off the back of an injury that limited his pre-season a bit, I thought he did very well in pretty strong company.”
In a sense, though, McGahan feels Munster will go into this game on a wing and a prayer on the basis that Aironi are such an unknown quantity.
While McGahan can surmise that the Italians will be strong, abrasive and very competitive up front, there is no record of any consequence to study. “Aironi bring a new product, while Treviso (the other Italian club) have generally stuck with but built on the squad they had before; Aironi have signed a very experienced forward pack and Test match players; they’re sending out a message of where they want to be with regards to the Magners League and what they might base their style of game on.”
MUNSTER (from): D Hurley, F Jones, D Barnes, D Howlett, S Tuitupou, J Murphy, I Dowling, P Warwick, S Deasy, D Williams, P Stringer, W du Preez, Dave Ryan, M Horan, J Hayes, T Buckley, D Fogarty, D Varley, M O’Driscoll, I Nagle, B Holland, Donncha Ryan, N Ronan, A Quinlan, P O’Mahony, T O’Donnell, D Leamy.
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