Doug Howlett will be back in Munster colours here in La Rochelle this evening (6.30pm) for the first time in eight months after recovering from a career-threatening Achilles tendon injury.
The record-breaking New Zealander is raring to go following the long months of recuperation and he gives new coach Rob Penney the benefit of experience in a very youthful-looking Munster team against local side Stade Rochelais.
But, while Penney has allowed most of his big names to stay at home for this week-long pre-season tour — Munster follow up tonight’s match with home (Musgrave Park) fixtures against Bristol and London Irish over the next couple of weeks — there will be more than a passing interest in how some of the new signings fare.
James Downey is named in the centre alongside Danny Barnes and Sean Dougall is included in the back row alongside James Coughlan and Tommy O’Donnell.
Penney intends to make best use of his resources, pledging to give each of the 31-man squad a run at some stage tonight. That means a return to arms for veteran Peter Stringer off the bench and Casey Laulala, the recent arrival from Cardiff Blues, will also see match time.
It’s early days yet for Penney, but the New Zealander is well impressed with what he has seen so far, even at the off-rugby bonding session the full squad enjoyed in Kerry last week when he said: “Quite a few characters emerged from that, and a fair share of them were from the younger group.”
Penney is also delighted the established players appear to have bought into his vision for Munster’s future. The former Canterbury coach admitted he was somewhat worried the senior players might not have shared his view of how the province should play the game from here on in, but said he was delighted and encouraged with the response to his plan at an inaugural meeting a couple of weeks ago.
Penney is hoping to see some even more encouraging signs, based on what a new breed of player might be capable of producing on the pitch, rather than on the training ground.
MUNSTER: D Hurley, D Howlett, D Barnes, J Downey, L O’Dea, I Keatley, D Williams, D Kilcoyne, G Slattery, S Archer, B Holland, B Hayers, T O’Donnell, J Coughlan, S Dougall.
Replacements: D Casey, M Horan, J Ryan, W du Preez, C Condon, P Donnellan, C O’Flaherty, P Butler, B O’Mahony, P Stringer, J Holland, S Deasy, JJ Hanrahan, C Laulala, S Scanlon, R O’Mahony.
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