Munster make eight changes as Benetton come calling

Benetton may get a shot in the arm from Italy’s dramatic first Six Nations win since 2015

Munster v Benetton

Venue: Musgrave Park, Cork.

Kick-off: 7.35pm.

On TV: Live on TG4 and Premier Sport


Munster return home to relatively unfamiliar pastures in recent times but no doubt also grateful to be back playing at sea level. Two losing points was a scant return from so much punishing effort in the heat and altitude of Pretoria and particularly trying conditions in Johannesburg, but despite a six-day turnaround their need for a maximum return against Benetton is acute.

Those losses on their South African safari, which at least were played, has left them fourth in the table, a point behind Glasgow and seven and eight adrift of Ulster and Leinster.

What’s more Munster host Leinster in a week’s time before their European last 16 two-legged tie with Exeter, and then face Ulster (away), Cardiff (home) and Leinster at the Aviva in a demanding run-in.

As an aside Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter has confirmed that Jack Nowell has been sidelined for a minimum six to eight weeks due to a broken arm which he sustained in England’s defeat by France last week.

While Musgrave Park has hosted the Irish Under-20s’ three home games in their 2022 Six Nations Grand Slam campaign, it will be the first Munster game at their Cork home since before the pandemic. The province last played at the ground when beating the Southern Kings on February 14th, 2020, by 68-3 in front of an attendance of 6,854.

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Unsurprisingly Johann van Graan has made eight changes, and the wonder is he didn’t make more, although he was restricted by Tadhg Beirne, Dave Kilcoyne, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and Joey Carbery all featuring for Ireland as they beat Scotland last Saturday to win the Triple Crown. Hence, along with Andrew Conway and their other sidelined players, they were not available.

Attack coach Stephen Larkham said the players who were part of the trek to South Africa will reap the benefits of training at altitude for two weeks but who knows what effects the mini tour might have on them. The last time Munster returned from a two-match trip to South Africa they were curiously slow out of the blocks in losing a Champions Cup semi-final against Racing 92 in Bordeaux.

Benetton might well receive a shot in the arm from the Azzurri’s dramatic first Six Nations win since 2015 away to Wales last week. They appear to have named a much stronger side than the one which was mauled, in every sense, by Leinster when losing 61-17 last time out three weeks ago.

Up front there is a new frontrow of Ivan Nemer, Tomas Baravalle and Nahuel Tetaz, while lock Irné Herbst, the fit again Italian back-rower Sebastian Negri and fellow flanker Manuel Zuliani all return.

In the backs right-winger Ratuva Tavuyara, 19-year-old centre Tommaso Menoncello (who became Italy’s youngest Championship try-scorer of all time in their opening game against France) and scrum-half and captain Dewaldt Duvenage also return.

Toa Halafihi, who started for Italy last week, starts again here, while Callum Braley, scrum-half in Cardiff, and Niccolò Cannone, a replacement against Wales, are also named on the bench. Tomas Albornoz moves from scrum-half to out-half.

Rousing backdrop

Prior to the pandemic Munster’s only defeat in their last 14 fixtures in Musgrave Park was by 18-16 to Edinburgh in November 2019 and a Cork public starved of frontline rugby for so long will surely provide a rousing backdrop.

Munster have met Benetton 22 times in both competitions, and hold a 19-3 head-to-head record. They have not been defeated by an Italian opponent for over nine years since Benetton beat them in Treviso in September 2013. Since then Munster have beaten this opposition 13 times in a row in all competitions.

It remains to be seen what effect their South African trip might have on them. John Hodnett, who has been picked to back up those defeats, described them as the two toughest games of his career due to the heat and altitude.

In what looks like a very exacting schedule, they did not return to their homes in Limerick or Cork until around noon on Monday, but they will still be expected to get the job done and, ideally, with a maximum haul.

MUNSTER: Matt Gallagher; Shane Daly, Damian de Allende, Rory Scannell, Simon Zebo; Ben Healy, Craig Casey; Josh Wycherley, Diarmuid Barron, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Fineen Wycherley; Jack O'Donoghue (C), John Hodnett, Gavin Coombes. Replacements: Scott Buckley, Jeremy Loughman, Keynan Knox, Jason Jenkins, Jack O'Sullivan, Neil Cronin, Jake Flannery, Chris Farrell.

BENETTON RUGBY: Andries Coetzee; Ratuva Tavuyara, Joaquin Riera, Tommaso Menoncello, Rhyno Smith; Tomas Albornoz, Dewaldt Duvenage (C); Ivan Nemer, Tomas Baravalle, Nahuel Tetaz; Irné Herbst, Carl Wegner; Sebastian Negri, Manuel Zuliani, Toa Halafihi. Replacements: Matteo Drudi, Federico Zani, Simone Ferrari, Niccolò Cannone, Matteo Meggiato, Callum Braley, Giacomo Da Re, Thomas Benvenuti.

Referee: Craig Evans (WRU)

Forecast: Munster to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times