Leamy's leading role for Italian job
MUNSTER go into their opening Magners League clash with Aironi at Musgrave Park tonight (7.30) bolstered by the best pre-season of the four Irish provinces.
And, while they are missing some heavy-hitters -- notably captain Paul O'Connell and Keith Earls -- through injury and international player management programmes, there is, nonetheless, a comforting solidity to the Munster side that will run out against a fired-up Italian outfit who are determined to make an impression on their competitive debut.
Denis Leamy's return to form and fitness has been a huge boost and handing the No 8 the captaincy in O'Connell's absence looks to be pretty astute move by coach Tony McGahan -- not only lifting the player after a difficult period out with injury, but also emphasising his importance to the cause.
It is good also to see the attacking skills of Felix Jones back at full-back and Donnacha Ryan able to start in an all-international back-row, although you suspect Ryan will see some action in his natural second-row slot this evening also.
The front five face a considerable challenge against a multi-capped Italian unit and, after a decent pre-season for the Munster set-pieces, this will be a true test of progress.
Wian du Preez has pedigree at scrum-time and forms an extremely mobile front-row with Tony Buckley and hooker Damien Varley. With Mick O'Driscoll in the second-row to oversee matters, the line-out should operate smoothly and you would expect Aironi ball to be targeted out of touch as Munster attempt to disrupt the settling-in process for the league newcomers.
While without such marquee names as Earls, Ronan O'Gara and Tomas O'Leary, there is still an assured look to the Munster backline. Once they get any sort of decent possession, Peter Stringer and Paul Warwick know how to run the show from half-back, Jones, Doug Howlett and Ian Dowling provide plenty of running menace in the back three and Johne Murphy has shown he has the football to be an effective foil to the directness of Sam Tuitupou in midfield.
And what of the Italians? Well, they bring a side containing nine internationals (only two less than their hosts) to Cork with a game-plan which seems certain to revolve around forward grunt and the boot of out-half Ludovic Mercier. French international Julien Laharrague has counter-attacking abilities from full-back, but the rest of the three-quarter line looks fairly pedestrian. Aironi have former Italian captain Marco Bortolami among their replacements, but Munster easily outdo the visitors when it comes to bench experience with Marcus Horan, John Hayes and Alan Quinlan all available for introduction.
The home team are particularly well served at open side, with Niall Ronan starting at seven after a decent summer tour with Ireland and Peter O'Mahony, hugely impressive last season with Cork Constitution, in reserve.
This one looks like it will be a full-blooded battle in the tight exchanges and any horticulturists attending Musgrave Park this evening will search in vain for shrinking violets. The likes of Fabio Ongaro, Salvatore Perugini and Carlo Del Fava do not hold back on the muscularity front and Munster will be determined to meet them head-on.
It places an extra onus on discipline and the Italians, in particular, will need to stay on the right side of referee Graham Knox, as yellow cards tend to be game-conceders away from home.
Based on their pre-season performances, the Munster tight five can provide the platform for their more dynamic back-row to do damage and out wide they look to have a pronounced edge in terms of invention.
The danger is the home side getting dragged down into a stop-start, grapple-fest with Mercier and Warwick deciding the game off the tee. Although the early exchanges may follow that pattern, this game should open up as it carries on and that will suit the home team more than Aironi.
It won't be easy, but it should be home rule.
MUNSTER -- F Jones; D Howlett, S Tuitupou, J Murphy, I Dowling; P Warwick, P Stringer; W du Preez, D Varley, T Buckley, M O'Driscoll, B Holland; D Ryan, N Ronan, D Leamy (capt). Reps: D Fogarty, M Horan, J Hayes, A Quinlan, P O'Mahony, D Williams, S Deasy, D Barnes
AIRONI -- J Laharrague; G Rubini, T Quartaroli, D des Fountain, G Toniolatti; L Mercier, T Tebaldi; Alberto de Marchi, F Ongaro, S Perugini; C Del Fava, Q Geldenhuys (capt); J Erasmus, G Krause, N Williams (capt). Reps: Andrea De Marchi, R Santamaria, L Milani, M Bortolami, A Birchall, M Wilson, A Benettin, G Pizarro.
REF -- G Knox (Scotland)
Munster v Aironi,
Live, RTE 2, 7.30