Champions Cup: Munster v Harlequins, Thomond Park, Sunday, 5.30pm – Live on BT Sport
In normal circumstances, Munster would be confidently expected to launch their latest shot at European glory, 12 years after that last success, on a winning note but then, as we know, little about rugby is normal right now.
In the absence of the inspiring Thomond Park roar, Munster are reunited for their first game together since losing their Pro 14 semi-final against Leinster on September 4th. By contrast Harlequins arrive in good form and settled, and this is reflected in the two selections.
Munster welcomed back their nine-strong international contingent who have been on Irish duty this week and in the event they have restored seven of them, while rewarding Gavin Coombes for his rich vein of form with a European debut at blindside.
Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Keith Earls, Conor Murray, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander all return, as do Mike Haley, James Cronin, Kevin O'Byrne and Jean Kleyn, with Coombes one of only three players retained in the starting line-up from the 52-3 win over Zebre a fortnight ago. Damian de Allende, also making his European debut, and Stephen Archer are the others, with John Ryan on the bench, where academy prop Josh Wycherley is in line to make his Champions Cup debut off the bench.
After his man-of-the-match performance last week, JJ Hanrahan is retained at outhalf, with Ben Healy on the bench.
Harlequins arrive on the back of consecutive bonus-point wins, scoring 10 tries, and make just three changes from the side which won 34-24 away to Gloucester despite playing the last 35 minutes with 14 men (and 10 of those with 13).
Paul Gustard restores English loosehead Joe Marler and Mike Brown, who was rested last week, while Australian international Ben Tapuai starts in place of the suspended Springbok Andre Esterhuizen at '12'. Number eight Alex Dombrandt, who has scored three tries in his last two games, continues to lead the side.
A key man is Filipino-born, 21-year-old outhalf Marcus Smith, who gave a master class last week when two trademark deft chips and one steepling up-and-under led to three of their four tries.
However, they appear to be more of a dry-track team and the forecast for Limerick on Sunday is not flash, with plenty of rain about. Even without their home fans, Munster can draw on some home comforts, not least a current 15-game unbeaten run at Thomond Park on top of a six-match winning run over Harlequins, albeit this is only the sides’ second meeting in 16 seasons.
MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Keith Earls; JJ Hanrahan, Conor Murray; James Cronin, Kevin O'Byrne, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Gavin Coombes, Peter O'Mahony (capt), CJ Stander.
Replacements: Rhys Marshall, Josh Wycherley, John Ryan, Fineen Wycherley, Jack O'Donoghue, Craig Casey, Ben Healy, Rory Scannell.
HARLEQUINS: Mike Brown; Nathan Earle, Luke Northmore, Ben Tapuai, Cadan Murley; Marcus Smith, Danny Care; Joe Marler, Scott Baldwin, Wilco Louw; Hugh Tizard, Glen Young; James Chisholm, Will Evans, Alex Dombrandt (capt).
Replacements: Elia Elia, Santiago Garcia Botta, Richard DeCarpentier, Tom Lawday, Scott Steele, James Lang, Ross Chisholm.
Referee: Pascal Gauzère (France)
Forecast: Munster to win.