Munster v Sharks
Venue: Thomond Park, Limerick
Kick-off: 7.35pm, Saturday, September 25th
On TV: Live on RTÉ 2, Premier 1 and URC TV
Resilient and redoubtable as ever, Munster begin their annual quest to end their trophy drought, which dates back to beating Leinster here in the League final in 2011, on what should be an emotionally charged night in their Limerick citadel.
If ever there was a ground not suited to an empty, cavernous backdrop it is assuredly Thomond Park, where the umbilical connection between team and supporters has so often conspired to bail Munster out of trouble or inspire them in equal measure.
Simon Zebo’s return for his first competitive game at the ground since May 2018 adds to the sense of occasion for what will be Munster’s first match with their home supporters roaring them on since a 29-10 win over Scarlets in front of a crowd of 13,500 in February last year.
Without the backing of home supporters, it was a reasonably creditable achievement for Munster to win 10 of their 13 matches here during lockdown last season, the exceptions being defeats to Leinster, Toulouse and Connacht.
In the previous 32 games with crowds at Thomond Park, dating back to a loss against Scarlets in February 2017, Munster lost here only twice – both times to Leinster. Team and home crowd alike will be keen to restore its citadel feeling tonight.
Relatively strong side
While Munster's Lions, Tadhg Beirne and Conor Murray, are a little while away from returning just yet just two weeks into their delayed pre-season, Johann van Graan has been able to pick a relatively strong side.
This includes seasonal debuts for eight players who were involved in Ireland's summer Tests against Japan and the USA, namely Andrew Conway, Joey Carbery, Craig Casey, David Kilcoyne, John Ryan, Fineen Wycherley, Peter O'Mahony and Gavin Coombes, who inherits the famous number eight jersey in the post-CJ era.
Munster are further buoyed by the presence of World Cup winner RG Snyman for only his second appearance for the squad, and his first since incurring a knee injury on his debut in August last year, in an otherwise call-looking bench.
In terms of the form of their opponents, the Sharks beat Griquas in the Currie Cup semi-final, before being clearly second best in the final a fortnight ago against the Bulls.
“We are playing against a battle-hardened team, the Sharks have gone through Super Rugby and now they’ve gone through [the] Currie Cup. They played the Currie Cup final two weeks ago, this is our first hit-out of the season. It’s a massive challenge for us from an intensity and fitness point of view,” admitted Van Graan.
Yet Munster should have a good pre-season under their belts, and given that word is that Stephen Larkham’s responsibilities and influence have grown, they should be as interesting a watch as ever.
Munster: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Dan Goggin, Rory Scannell, Simon Zebo; Joey Carbery, Craig Casey; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Fineen Wycherley; Peter O'Mahony (C), Jack O'Donoghue, Gavin Coombes. Replacements: Diarmuid Barron, Jeremy Loughman, Keynan Knox, RG Snyman, Thomas Ahern, Rowan Osborne, Ben Healy, Chris Cloete.
Sharks: Curiwn Bosch, Yaw Penxe Yaw, Werner Kok, Marius Louw, Thaakir Abrahams, Henry (Boeta) Chamberlain, Ruan Pienaar, Khwezi Mona, Kerron Van Vuuren, Thomas Du Toit Thomas, Le Roux Le Roux, Gerbrandt Grobler, Richardson Dylan, Henco Venter, Phepsi Buthelezi (C). Replacements: Fez Mbatha Fez, Ntuthuko Mchunu, Khutha Mchunu, Mpilo Gumede, Ruben Van Heerden, Hyron Andrews, Sanele Nohamba, Jeremy Ward.
Referee: Craig Evans (WRU)
Betting: 1/25 Munster, 55/1 Draw, 12/1 Sharks. Handicap odds (Munster – 23pts) 10/11 Munster, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Sharks.
Forecast: Munster to win.