Ireland captain Paul O’Connell makes his return to Munster colours ahead of schedule tonight having been cleared by the IRFU to face Newport Gwent Dragons at Rodney Parade.
Having played 80 minutes of Test rugby against both Australia and New Zealand in successive weeks, Munster head coach Rob Penney had expected to be without the talismanic lock until next week’s Heineken Cup home pool game against Perpignan. But after consultation with the IRFU under the governing body’s player management programme, it was decided O’Connell would be made available.
The RaboDirect Pro12 leaders, on a four-match winning run, will also give a debut to South African wing Gerhard van den Heever, who has recovered from the groin injury and there is a further boost with the inclusion at outside centre of Ireland back Keith Earls, who will be making his first start in five weeks having missed the November Tests with tendonitis in his knee.
Also returning from injury are inside centre James Downey and fly-half Ian Keatley with Penney making 12 changes from last week’s 31-10 bonus-point win at Cardiff Blues.
Only full-back Felix Jones and forwards CJ Stander and Billy Holland, who will captain the side from the back row, are retained.
Penney’s side lost at Rodney Parade on their most recent visit last April but have a victory over the Welsh region from the home fixture at Musgrave Park in September, when James Cronin and Peter O’Mahony scored tries in a 23-9 win.
“They have [progressed] and they’re a very capable unit,” Penney said. “We had a good day against them here and obviously it was earlier in the campaign. We’ll be looking to replicate that. We’re going to need to because they’re a good side and a dogged side. The Dragons have a tradition of being tough, robust and difficult opponents even in the worst of times but they’re a good side, worthy, and they’ll be difficult.”
Also back in the starting line-up for Munster to complete an all-Test-capped front five are Ireland front-rowers Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry and Stephen Archer, while Donncha O’Callaghan partners O’Connell in the second row.
Holland switches from his usual position at lock to blindside flanker in a back row that also features CJ Stander and James Coughlan, while Duncan Williams replaces Cathal Sheridan at scrum-half in a half-back partnership with Keatley. Denis Hurley makes his first start since sustaining a knee injury against Gloucester in October, coming in on the left wing.
With the Dragons the least represented of the four Welsh regions in their national side this month, and with only British & Irish Lions No.8 Toby Faletau named in Warren Gatland’s Wales side against Australia in Cardiff tomorrow, their director of rugby Lyn Jones has named an unchanged team from the starting XV which won 23-8 at Glasgow.
DRAGONS: D Evans; W Harries, P Leach, R Wardle, M Pewtner; J Tovey, R Rees; O Evans, S Parry, F Chaparro; C Hill, R Sidoli – captain; L Evans, N Cudd, N Talei.
Replacements: E Dee, A Coundley, D Way, M Screech, I Jones, W Evans, S Jones, A Smith.
MUNSTER: F Jones; G van den Heever, K Earls, J Downey, D Hurley; I Keatley, D Williams; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, S Archer; Donncha O’Callaghan, P O’Connell; B Holland — captain, CJ Stander, J Coughlan.
Replacements: D Varley, J Cronin, BJ Botha, I Nagle, B O’Mahony, C Sheridan, JJ Hanrahan, I Dineen.
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