URC: Munster v Zebre Parma
Saturday, Musgrave Park, Cork, kick-off 5.05pm (Live on RTÉ and Premier Sports)
Surely, if ever a game appeared to be both a no-win and a must-win at the same time, this is it. Munster seek to belatedly record their first competitive victory of the new season after those away day defeats by Cardiff and the Dragons, and do so against a side that they have beaten in each of the previous 18 occasions they have met.
What’s more, their average winning margin in the last five meetings has been 33 points but Munster host the Italians at a low ebb as they seek to avoid a fifth successive defeat in this competition, which would be their worst run ever.
Having nine players with the Emerging Ireland squad in South Africa and a lengthy casualty list hasn’t helped, and Graham Rowntree makes four changes from the side beaten 23-17 by the Dragons last week.
The Academy duo of Conor Phillips and Patrick Campbell start on the wings in place of the injured Keith Earls and Simon Zebo, with Phillips making his senior debut and Campbell making his URC debut.
Keynan Knox and Tadhg Beirne, replacements last week, start this week while Peter O’Mahony has overcome an ankle injury to be named as captain.
Dan Goggin moves to inside centre with Malakai Fekitoa starting at 13, while Craig Casey will make his 50th Munster appearance.
Casey has signed a three-year contract while Mike Haley, Shane Daly and Josh Wycherley have signed two-year contract extensions, while the sidelined Alex Kendellen has extended his contract further to remain with the province until at least July 2025.
Stephen Archer will make his 250th Munster appearance when he is sprang from the bench where, contrastingly, the 18-year-old Academy ex-Crescent College and Old Crescent backrow forward Ruadhan Quinn from Old Crescent, and formerly of Crescent College is included among the replacements is set to become the youngest ever player to line out in a competitive fixture for Munster in the professional era.
Jeremy Loughman, Conor Murray and Rory Scannell are all set for their first appearances of the URC season off the bench.
In times of strife, a return to Musgrave Park has proved comforting for Munster who have lost just once in their last 16 matches at Musgrave Park, 16-28 to Edinburgh in November 2019, and the 18 previous wins against Zebre includes their only meeting at Musgrave Park 36-8 in February 2014.
Zebre finished bottom of the table last season, with one win and 17 defeats in their 18 matches, but they have had quite an overhaul in playing personnel — with 21 new signings — and in approach. Although they have lost their opening two games at home to Leinster and the Sharks, Zebre scored 10 tries in those outings (only Ulster, Leinster and Edinburgh scored more) compared to Munster’s two thus far.
The rejuvenated Italians will again look to unveil their array of launch plays and seek the edges against a Munster side who’ve had issues defending out wide, not least against strike moves.
Graham Rowntree and Mike Prendergast will be looking for more penetration and infinitely more accuracy on the ball for what needs to be a restorative evening in Cork, albeit Munster punters might not be inclined to weigh in on the -29 point handicap.
Munster: Mike Haley, Conor Phillips, Malakai Fekitoa, Dan Goggin, Patrick Campbell, Ben Healy, Craig Casey; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Keynan Knox, Fineen Wycherley, Tadhg Beirne, Jack O’Donoghue, Peter O’Mahony (CAPT), Jack O’Sullivan. Replacements: Scott Buckley, Jeremy Loughman, Stephen Archer, Edwin Edogbo, Ruadhan Quinn, Conor Murray, Joey Carbery, Rory Scannell
Zebre Parma: Richard Kriel, Pierre Bruno, Erich Cronjé, Enrico Lucchin (CAPT), Jacopo Trulla, Tiff Eden, Alessandro Fusco, Juan Pitinari, Giampietro Ribaldi, Ion Neculai, Gabriele Venditti, Leonard Krumov, Davide Ruggeri, MJ Pelser, Taina Fox-Matamua. Replacements: Luca Bigi, Luca Rizzoli, Matteo Nocera, Joshua Furno, Iacopo Bianchi, Nicolò Casilio, Franco Smith Jr, Lorenzo Pani
Referee: AJ Jacobs (SARU, 12th league game).
Forecast: Munster to win.