Injury-plagued Munster up against it as they host Leicester
New head coach Johann van Graan relying on ‘number one prop’ Kilcoyne to deliver
Conor Murray in action for Munster during the European Rugby Champions Cup match last year against Leicester Tigers. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Munster v Leicester, Thomond Park, Saturday, 7.45pm (BT Sport)
Lest old acquaintances be forgot. For the third December running these two-time winners and one-time titans of European rugby go back-to-back before Christmas, and in the previous two seasons whichever team emerged with the better head-to-head record ultimately progressed to the knock-out stages whereas the loser failed to advance.
In their ninth meeting dating back to their Hand of Back clash in the 2002 final, as ever therefore, the stakes are huge.
Their latest Anglo-Irish renewal of hostilities comes in the traditional Saturday evening slot at Thomond Park, albeit in the rather unseemly hour of 7.45pm, although that should not detract from the atmosphere.
The occasion also finds Munster in customary backs-to-the-wall mode, with a raft of injuries, a new head coach facing into his first foray into Europe and with the futures of Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander still to be resolved.
Yet for all the attention on the latter two factors, Munster have been through more unsettling times than this, and the most significant factor at play this evening is assuredly a crippling casualty toll which includes Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Jaco Taute, Ronan O’Mahony, Tyler Bleyendaal, Gerbrandt Grobler, Dave O’Callaghan, Tommy O’Donnell (who returned for the As last night), Niall Scannell, James Cronin and Liam O’Connor.
This means that David Kilcoyne, who’s had his own niggles of late, will be required to endure for as much of the 80 minutes as possible, given his understudy is the 24-year-old Academy product Brian Scott. His 15 caps to date have all been off the bench, and it could also be that John Ryan, who has again been demoted behind Stephen Archer, is also covering loosehead.
The new head coach, Johann van Graan, said of Kilcoyne: “He is a quality player. He is a quality man. He has got a smile on his face. I have really enjoyed him over the past two weeks. He is the number one starting prop. He is the international starting prop at this stage coming back into the team. He might get a few more minutes than usual but he should be fine.”
Necessity being the mother of invention in his first European selection, and no doubt largely guided by Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones, van Graan has given Euro debuts to three players. In Farrell’s absence, centre Sam Arnold will play in the Champions Cup for Munster for the first time, although he did play a European game in January 2016 during his time with Ulster. Alex Wootton and flanker Chris Cloete, whose dynamic ball-carrying and strength over the ball has made a striking impression in his short time at Munster, also make their Euro debuts.
Cloete joins the aforementioned O’Mahony and Stander in the backrow, two of five recalled Ireland internationals, along with Conor Murray, Andrew Conway and Kilcoyne. Darren Sweetnam, despite his impressive entry into Test match rugby last month, is on the bench.
Leicester lost at home to Worcester for the first time ever two weeks ago, but that ended a run of six successive wins, and former Leinster coach Matt O’Connor restored almost all his English front-liners, the hugely influential Youngs brothers – again Murray v Ben Youngs will be worth the admission money alone – and the classy George Ford, for last week’s 32-25 loss away to old enemies Wasps.
In any event, the honeymoon is over for van Graan. “Yeah, it’s strange. It’s like certain Test matches that I’ve been involved with, certain opposition brings a certain vibe. This morning when I walked into the auditorium with all the players here, you could feel a different vibe than last week. All the international players are back as well and everybody knows that this is a big game in a very tightly contested pool.”
“I’ve read about Munster versus Leicester in the past. I did a bit of research on the two games last year and more of the big picture stuff about what’s happening off the field and the way that the people react. This is a big game and one I’m looking forward to very much.”
He’ll therefore be aware, like all the Munster cognoscenti, that Leicester are the only team to have stormed their Thomond citadel twice in Europe. It could be that this is an opportune time to visit here again, although if Kilcoyne can go most of the 80, Stander, O’Mahony and Murray stand up and fight, and Keatley maintains his form, the Red Army will roar them over the line.
MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Sam Arnold, Rory Scannell, Alex Wootton; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Rhys Marshall, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (capt), Chris Cloete, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, Brian Scott, John Ryan, Darren O’Shea, Jack O’Donoghue, Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan, Darren Sweetnam.
LEICESTER: Telusa Veainu; Adam Thompstone, Matt Smith, Matthew Tait, Jonny May; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Kyle Traynor, Tom Youngs (capt), Dan Cole; Michael Fitzgerald, Graham Kitchener; Tino Mapapalangi, Luke Hamilton, Sione Kalafamoni.
Referee: Jérome Garcès (France).
Previous meetings: (2001-02, final) Leicester 15 Munster 9. (2002-03) Leicester 7 Munster 20. (2006-07) Leicester 19 Munster 21, Munster 6 Leicester 13. (2015-16) Munster 19 Leicester 31, Leicester 17 Munster 6. (2016-17) Munster 38 Leicester 0, Leicester 18 Munster 16.
Results so far: Munster – 17-17 v Castres (a), 14-7 v Racing (h). Leicester – 18-22 v Racing (a) 54-29 v Castres (h).
Leading try scorers: Munster – David Kilcoyne, Conor Murray, Andrew Conway, Simon Zebo 1 each. Leicester – Telusa Veainu, Jonny May 3 each.
Leading points scorers: Munster – Tyler Bleyendaal 7. Leicester – George Ford 25.
Betting (Paddy Power): ¼ Munster, 20/1 Draw, 11/4 Leicester. Handicap odds (Leicester +8pts) 10/11 Munster, 25/1 Draw, 10/11 Leicester.
Forecast: Munster to win.