Laulala and Downey take centre stage for Munster

New coach Rob Penney has made four changes to his starting 15 for Munster’s second pre-season friendly against Bristol at Musgrave Park on Friday at Musgrave Park (7pm).

New signings Casey Laulala and James Downey start in the centres with Damien Varley in for rookie Ger Slattery. Elsewhere, Dave Foley is in for Brian Hayes while Paddy Butler replaces James Coughlan.

Although long-term injury victims Felix Jones and Niall Ronan are still missing, and there is still no sign of internationals Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara, Donncha O’Callaghan, Keith Earls, Donnacha Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Simon Zebo and Conor Murray, Penney has been able to introduce a bit more experience.

As youngsters Ger Slattery, John Ryan and JJ Hanrahan are deemed superfluous to requirements this weekend, Penney has called on BJ Botha and Johne Murphy to form part of an extended bench.

While Munster disappointed in losing to French second division side Stade Rochelais in La Rochelle on Friday (7-31), Penney is not inclined to panic as he pointed out yesterday. “There were lots of positives,” he said. “If you focus on the score line, there were some issues we have to clear up, no doubt about that, but we weren’t at all focused on that, but rather on some stuff that was going on within the camp. We achieved some of the things we set out to do and we didn’t in others; that would be an indication of where the group is at, we have a lot of work to do.”

Penney pointed to the fact the French side had come into the match off the back of a couple of earlier games and remarked: “It looked like one team was playing its first match and the other a third. We took 31 guys, made a number of changes, so those are disjointed affairs when your focus is on other things rather than the outcome. It still was well worth it.”

Part of the positive spin was down to the successful return of Doug Howlett, who looked as sharp as ever following his recovery from a career-threatening Achilles tendon injury.

“Obviously it’s great to have him back, a world class player.”

Forwards coach Anthony Foley was of similar opinion and described the New Zealander as inspirational: “His return to fitness has been nothing short of remarkable, he has been a thorough professional, always been there for the team, even through his injury. His work rate, attention to detail to get back to full fitness is something many an aspiring professional could learn a bit from.”

MUNSTER (v Bristol): D Hurley; D Howlett, C Laulala, J Downey, L O’Dea; I Keatley, D Williams; D Kilcoyne, D Varley, S Archer; B Holland, D Foley; T O’Donnell, P Butler, S Dougall.

Replacements from: W du Preez, M Horan, BJ Botha, S Henry, D Casey, B Hayes, P Donnellan, D O’Callaghan, B O’Mahony, P Stringer, S Deasy, D Barnes, J Murphy, S Scanlon.

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