Rejuvenated Munster can tame old rivals Leicester Tigers
Six PRO12 victories in succession signal the rude health of Rassie Erasmus’s squad
Simon Zebo and Conor Murray return from Ireland duty to aid Munster’s cause against Leicester Tigers. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Munster v Leicester Tigers Thomond Park, 3.15pm – live BT Sport
A Munster season of startlingly impressive performances enters the crucial European back-to-back phase against an old enemy.
December 2015 seems like an awfully long time ago. Leicester 31-19 win was how that winter night went, as the Premiership giants added to their famous 2007 victory on the same sod.
Munster defending can never be so weak again.
“We were the first side to win there and the only team who have won twice at Thomond Park,” said Richard Cockerill this week.
“Both teams have huge heritage in Europe. The special thing about the Champions Cup is that even in the pool stages you get some big games and this is going to be a huge, stand-alone occasion.”
Where to start?
The dominant one of the two best scrumhalves on planet rugby, Ben Youngs versus Conor Murray, running machine against controlling force, a Lions duel in Limerick then Leicester, will tell us which pack has superior muscle.
The Tigers may be the club that banished Thomond Park’s European invincibility but they arrive without their anchor Dan Cole due to a laceration sustained in that out of window, money-generating Twickenham venture against Australia.
The best tighthead in the Northern Hemisphere is joined in the medical room by Marcus Ayerza and Tom Croft but Manu Tuilagi – the English version of Sean O’Brien regarding impact and injury profile – makes his latest return.
Tuilagi’s barrelling runs alone will not be enough, not against Rassie Erasmus’s rejuvenated squad and Cockerill knows this.
“We expect a huge battle between two great clubs who will really be going at it. Their performance against Glasgow Warriors was right out of the top drawer. Given the circumstances, I would have put any amount of money on them to win that game. Whichever team you were you would not have wanted to go there on that day. They have got a good side and they seem to have found some energy and form.
“There seems to be a big buzz around the place at the moment and they are getting full crowds, which they weren’t last season. There are a few unique clubs around the European circuit and Munster are certainly one of them.”
Takes one to know one.
Munster spin into Europe off six straight victories; the Glasgow and Maori occasions will never be forgotten.
Erasmus makes six changes as the internationals all return.
Conor Murray, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Donnacha Ryan and CJ Stander rejoin Peter O’Mahony while the soon to be Irish outhalf Tyler Bleyendaal will direct traffic at number 10.
Such is the form of the local lads that Jean Kleyn, Rhys Marshall and Thomas du Toit must make their European debuts off the bench. Same goes for Jack O’Donoghue who, despite being capped against Canada, is unable to squeeze Tommy O’Donnell out of a nicely balanced backrow.
Andrew Conway also makes way as Darren Sweetnam’s breakthrough season promises more freewheeling from a dangerous back field alongside Zebo and Earls.
A decent contest is promised but Munster all day here.
MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Darren Sweetnam, Jaco Taute, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Tyler Bleyendaal, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Donnacha Ryan, Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (capt), Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander. Replacements: Rhys Marshall, Thomas du Toit, Stephen Archer, Jean Kleyn, Jack O’Donoghue, Duncan Williams, Ian Keatley, Andrew Conway.
LEICESTER TIGERS: George Worth; Adam Thompstone, Manu Tuilagi, Owen Williams, Peter Betham; Freddie Burns, Ben Youngs; Logovi’i Mulipola, Tom Youngs (capt), Greg Bateman; Ed Slater, Graham Kitchener; Mike Fitzgerald, Brendon O’Connor, Lachlan McCaffrey. Replacements: George McGuigan, Ellis Genge, Pat Cilliers, Luke Hamilton, Will Evans, Sam Harrison, Jack Roberts, Tom Brady. Referee: Romain Poite (France).
Previous meetings: Leicester 17-6 Munster; Munster 19-31 Leicester (both December 20015); Munster 6-13 Leicester (January 2007).
Betting: Munster (-8) 10/11.
Forecast: Munster win.