New boys pack a familiar punch
MUNSTER step into the unknown on Saturday when they take on Aironi in their opening Magners League fixture at Musgrave Park, but while there is an air of mystery surrounding the newly created Italian side, there is also a sense of familiarity surrounding their playing squad.
Treviso, Italy's other representatives in the country's debut season in what has up to now been a Celts-only competition, are more familiar to Irish rugby followers through their participation in the Heineken Cup but, while Saturday will be Aironi's first competitive fixture in Cork, they are launching from a core of international experience, particularly in the front five.
Formed this year via the amalgamation of various clubs from the Lombardia and Emilia-Romagna regions, Aironi have recruited astutely with grizzled front-row practitioners in the shape of prop Salvatore Perugini, formerly of Toulouse, hooker Fabio Ongaro and prop Matias Aguero, who both joined from Saracens. They are well served at second-row also, where Marco Bortolami has joined from Gloucester, while Carlo Del Fava is well known in Ireland following his stint with Ulster between 2007 and 2009.
That front-five combination boasts a total of 279 caps for the Azzurri, while Aironi also have the 13-time capped South African-born lock Quintin Geldenhuys on their books. In the back-row, New Zealander Josh Sole has made 46 international appearances for his adopted country, while fellow flankers Jaco Erasmus, Simone Favaro are also Italian internationals.
At No 8, Aironi have acquired the services of Nick Williams from Munster, a player who will surely be determined to have a big performance on the ground where he scored a hat-trick of tries against the Dragons last season. The Aucklander's time at Munster was troubled by injury and inconsistent form when he did manage to force his way into the team, but he is a powerful ball carrier and, with a run of games, could be extremely effective.
As with the national side, the backline is somewhat less daunting and the likelihood is that Aironi's approach this season will be based around forward power and the boot of experienced French out-half Ludovic Mercier, a prolific points-scorer in the English Premiership during his time with Gloucester.
Tito Tebaldi has 13 caps for Italy but remains a work in progress at scrum-half but, out wide, Kaine Robertson and Matteo Pratichetti have plenty of experience at wing and centre respectively. They also have South African Danwel Demas, who picked up a try for the Cheetahs against the Lions last year and, while he has a reputation for high-profile blunders, the winger has the pace to make an impact.
However, on Saturday it seems certain Aironi will attempt to bully Munster up front -- considering the 2009 champions will be without the injured Paul O'Connell and other front-line performers set to be rested under Ireland's player management scheme.
"We have a pretty big and heavy pack of forwards and we will be looking to use that strength," concedes Sole. "But we will be playing positive rugby too, it won't be all crash and bash. We won't be negative but we expect some good results and to hum along quite nicely -- if we can finish somewhere around sixth, that would be outstanding in our first season."
The introduction of the Italian teams into the Magners League not only provides the competition with a shot of energy and variety but also serves as a welcome boost to the Six Nations, where regular competitive club competition will increase the chances of Italy making a meaningful impact for the first time since they joined the top table 10 years ago.
Traditionally, Italian sides have been confidence-boosting fodder in European rugby but Aironi look like they mean business and Munster at home represents the ideal opportunity to see if that impression holds substance.