Champions Cup, round of 16: Sharks v Munster
Saturday, Kings Park, 12.30 Irish time (Live on BT Sport)
Munster head coach Graham Rowntree has entrusted Jack Crowley with the team’s game management plan, a demonstration of faith in promoting the 23-year-old Innishannon native for this pivotal Heineken Champions Cup clash, preferred in the role of playmaker to Joey Carbery.
Crunching Crowley’s numbers illustrates that the decision was no bagatelle. In 14 appearances this season, the former Bandon Rugby Club and Bandon Grammar alumnus has eight starts: one at fullback, five at centre and just two – both against Ulster – in the number 10 jersey.
There is no doubting Crowley’s talent or his mettle, both of which have been tempered in the match environment. This is the opportunity he has craved and one where he will be keen to reinforce his aptitude to manage the big occasion, not purely for his own affirmation but that of Munster.
He brings an enthusiasm, a vibrancy in style and substance, but that flair must be accompanied by a clear-eyed precision and a capacity to minister wisely to the team requirements.
Crowley will need his team-mates to provide a platform. The return of Antoine Frisch to the midfield brings a creative edge, and allows Malakai Fekitoa to return to his more natural position of inside centre.
Calvin Nash was one of the few Munster players to emerge with credit from last week’s disappointing defeat to the Glasgow Warriors, bringing a cutting edge as he has done all season, so too Shane Daly. If Mike Haley is mentioned in dispatches, he is invariably galvanising the team.
[ Calvin Nash flourishing in Munster’s more high-tempo, ball-in-hand game ]
Craig Casey is in a similar situation to Crowley, handed the starting role and with it the opportunity to prove that the future is now. The presence of Conor Murray and Carbery on the bench means that Rowntree has the personnel to change tack.
It is the Munster pack, though, that must shoulder the heaviest burden if the rugby wisdom that “forwards win matches, backs decide by how much” is to be believed. A central tenet of that workload is the set-piece and especially the scrum, where Munster have the lowest rate of success in the tournament (69 per cent) and have conceded the most penalties (five).
RG Snyman starts his first game for the province since making his debut back in August 2020, and it will be interesting to see what influence he and Jean Kleyn, outstanding all season for the province, can wield against Munster old boy Gerbrandt Grobler and the bellicose Springbok Eben Etzebeth.
Peter O’Mahony’s return to lead the team provides direction, a voracious workrate, lineout acumen and an uncompromising edge when the collisions get a little salty. John Hodnett has been superb, while Gavin Coombes’ theatres of influence need to expand further without losing that capacity to swat aside tacklers from close range.
The Sharks, led by the imperious Siya Kolisi, are not short on power athletes up front, starting with their Springbok frontrow of Ox Nché, Bongi Mbonambi and another Munster old boy in Thomas du Toit. World Cup winners Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi are potential game-changers.
[ Munster will arrive in Durban in familiar, backs-against-the-wall fashion ]
Yet for all their quality the Sharks have lost their last three matches in the URC and are searching for a performance that befits the calibre of their players. Clare-born attack coach and former Ireland under-20 Grand Slam winning coach (2019) Noel McNamara will be hoping to plot the downfall of his native province.
The nature of Munster’s defeat last weekend, on foot of a ragged and distracted first-half performance, was at odds with the progress that they have made after a poor start to the season. They are good enough to win this match – the bookies have the Sharks as five-point favourites – and Rowntree has been courageous selection-wise in pursuit of that goal. How the team responds will tell him a great deal.
Sharks: B Chamberlain; W Kok, L Am, R Janse van Rensburg, M Mapimpi; C Bosch, J Hendrikse; Ó Nché, B Mbonambi, T du Toit; E Etzebeth, G Grobler; S Kolisi (capt), V Tshituka, S Notshe. Replacements: K van Vuuren, N Mchunu, C Sadie, E van Heerden, P Buthelezi, G Williams, B Tapuai, T Abrahams.
Munster: M Haley; C Nash, A Frisch, M Fekitoa, S Daly; J Crowley, C Casey; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, R Salanoa; J Kleyn, RG Snyman; P O’Mahony (capt), J Hodnett, G Coombes. Replacements: D Barron, J Wycherley, S Archer, F Wycherley, J O’Donoghue, C Murray, J Carbery, A Kendellen.
Referee: W Barnes (England)