Munster v Benetton Treviso
Sky Sports 5
Sport often defies pre-match expectation but any deviation from a Munster victory would seem fanciful, even for the most partisan of Benetton Treviso supporters.
The Italian club is fighting a 14-game losing streak in the Guinness Pro12 and that is the significant mental baggage to bring to the opening weekend of the Champions Cup, particularly if Munster escapes quickly on the scoreboard.
Watching Treviso recently in the RDS, their diligence in the basics, aptitude in the set piece and general graft was admirable but a lack of variety in attack, relentlessly taking contact rather than seeking space, and a generally poorly directed kicking game proved an insurmountable handicap.
They’re gritty, dogged opponents but, exposed to the elite of the European club game, they won’t suffice. They may take a modicum of comfort from an earlier visit to Munster this season, losing 18-13 at Musgrave Park, a Pro12 game in which they led at the interval.
Munster captain CJ Stander rescued his side that night in Cork with two second-half tries and he’ll be looking to have similarly vigorous impact here.
Newly-Irish qualified, he’s recently spoken to Joe Schmidt, and acknowledges that he’s about a 12-game window to provide an irresistible case for inclusion in Ireland’s Six Nations Championship squad. In essence he just needs to maintain current standards.
In the absence of injured captain, Peter O’Mahony, Dave O’Callaghan has claimed the number six jersey, while the gifted Jack O’Donoghue is continuing his playing education as an openside flanker, having played most of his underage rugby as a number eight.
Australian Mark Chisholm will add ballast to the pack, while it's nice to see Mike Sherry back at hooker following a horrendous run of injuries. He plays his first European match in over two years.
Keith Earls sustained a concussion in the dying seconds of last week's victory over Edinburgh but has passed all the return-to-play protocols and is named on the right wing. Andrew Conway has started the season impressively but arguably Munster's most impressive back is Francis Saili.
The twice capped All Blacks, is a game breaker, something that coach Anthony Foley acknowledges: "Francis definitely brings something different to our midfield. We know he can be a devastating runner and he has some wonderful offloads up his sleeve, but he is also very solid defensively.
“We have already seen some really nice touches from him and he is someone we expect to make an impact. I played alongside guys like Lifeimi Mafi and Rua Tipoki who were tremendous centres, and Francis is very much in the same mould. He is a high calibre player, and we hope he will bring a lot to us as a team.”
Simon Zebo’s natural flair and invention illustrates the cutting edge that the home side possesses out wide. The key on the day will be exploiting that ability. The more fluency that Munster can inject, the higher the tempo and the greater the width they can put on the game, the more difficult they’ll make it for the visitors.
Argentinian Lucas Amorosino should make his debut off the bench.
Treviso aren’t hard-wired to play catch-up rugby and they’ll be hoping that they can tie-down Munster up front and look to build pressure through territory and possession. Their head coach Umberto Castellato has given the role of outhalf to 24-year-old, former Australian underage international James Ambrosini.
Luke McLean switches to a more familiar role of fullback having played a few games in the number 10 jersey.
Treviso boast some excellent forwards – one or two of which have been held in reserve initially on the bench – and are led by the outstanding Alessandro Zanni, one of the best flankers in world rugby.
Eduardo Gori is a constant threat on the fringes but unless the Italians can be more creative in the “10-12-13 axis”, then their challenge is going to be a little one dimensional.
In a tournament of fine margins, bonus points are so valuable. Munster will want to start their European campaign as they hope to continue.
MUNSTER: A Conway; K Earls, F Saili, D Hurley, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, BJ Botha; D Ryan, M Chisholm; Dave O'Callaghan, J O'Donoghue, CJ Stander (capt). Replacements: D Casey, J Cronin, J Ryan, D Foley, R Copeland, T O'Leary, R Scannell, L Amorosino.
BENETTON TREVISO: L McLean; L Nitoglia, J Hayward, E Bacchin, T Iannone; J Ambrosini, E Gori; M Zanusso, M Gega, R Harden; R Douglas Naude, JF Montauriol; F Minto, A Zanni, A Steyn. Replacements: D Giazzon, M Muccignat, F Fillipetto, D Budd, M Barbini, A de Marchi, C Smylie, S Christie.
Referee: Matthew Carley (England).
Verdict: Munster to win.