Tuesday 11 December 2018

Home-town hero Zebo begins his long goodbye

Munster duo Simon Zebo and Sean McCarthy playing soccer during training ahead of Munster’s game against Glasgow tonight. Photo: DIARMUID GREENE/SPORTSFILE
Munster duo Simon Zebo and Sean McCarthy playing soccer during training ahead of Munster’s game against Glasgow tonight. Photo: DIARMUID GREENE/SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

The evolution will not be televised. Rassie Erasmus bids farewell to Munster but only the faithful who attend will witness his leaving of the province as neither of tonight's games featuring the Irish sides will be screened.

Transition begins on the pitch, too.

Simon Zebo begins his rather longer goodbye at Irish Independent Park against Dragons (7.35pm), the first of two scheduled appearances in his home town only made possible by his sudden exclusion from the Irish squad following his decision to opt for the Top 14 next summer. Ireland's loss is Cork's gain; for one night, at least.

"He's a wonderful player, he's injury-free and we've got the privilege of having him. Ireland haven't picked him, and we'd be stupid not to play him," said Erasmus, who, along with Jacques Nienaber, is expected to formally hand over the keys to his South African compatriot Johann van Graan next week.

Hearts

"It would be nice to sign off on Friday with a win. We're sitting solidly second in our conference with a four- or five-point lead over the next teams. That's more for the club, not for us.

"I know the guys played their hearts out against Connacht and Racing and are doing the best they can.

"A result would be great so that we can go into the three-week break so that we can meet Zebre and Ospreys before Europe. I would like the club to be nice and steady by then."

Munster's form has been scatty though, the Champions Cup success at home to Racing 92 their sole win in the last four.

JJ Hanrahan's boob in Galway last week has typified their travails, with his costly error easing Connacht towards the finishing line.

He gets a chance to make amends from a starting position at ten.

"I thought he had a great game except for the tackle that he missed that probably cost us the game, for which he puts his hand up."

Behemoth Chris Cloete makes his debut for Munster and much is expected of the back-rower, particularly as tired ball-carrying has been another feature of his side's lacklustre form of late.

Billy Holland captains the side and is set to make his 170th appearance for the province having started all nine of Munster's games so far this season, a reflection of not only his consistency but also the glaring lack of alternatives in the 'row'.

Darren Sweetnam, Chris Farrell and Ian Keatley are all in the match-day 23 having been released from Ireland camp. In all, there are 10 changes to the side that faced Connacht last week.

Hanrahan and Duncan Williams make up the half-back pairing with Sweetnam and Alex Wootton, Munster's top try-scorer this term with five tries, on the wings. Rory Scannell, desperately unfortunate not to make the Irish roster, and Farrell maintain their centre partnership.

Rhys Marshall keeps his place at hooker with Academy player Liam O'Connor and tighthead Stephen Archer completing the front-row.

Jean Kleyn comes in to partner Holland in the engine room as Erasmus names an exciting back-row trio of Jack O'Donoghue, Cloete and Robin Copeland.

Kevin O'Byrne, James Cronin and Brian Scott provide the front-row cover with Cronin and Scott set for their second appearances of the season.

Darren O'Shea is set for his first senior involvement of the campaign with on-loan Mark Flanagan completing the forward cover.

James Hart, Keatley and Sam Arnold - who is also in line for his first senior game of the season - are the backline replacements.

They should make hay tonight, despite all the changes, as not even Bernard Jackman's undoubted enthusiasm can paper over a seriously under-resourced squad.

"They certainly have some firepower and have five guys in the Welsh squad," counters Erasmus of tonight's opponents. "It's going to be a massive challenge for us."

"It shows how much Bernard has got right in a short space of time since he got the job, they are building, building and gaining confidence and had some really good games so it's going to be tough."

With Hallam Amos one of those picked in the Wales squad, Will Talbot-Davies is named at full-back in the back three alongside wings Ashton Hewitt and Jared Rosser. Adam Warren replaces Tyler Morgan in the centre.

Angus O'Brien and Charlie Davies are given the nod at half-back as Sarel Pretorius is named on the bench.

The front-row is all change as Gerard Ellis is named as hooker with props Thomas Davies and Lloyd Fairbrother moving from the bench into the starting XV.

The second-row sees lock Rynard Landman join Joe Davies, as flanker Aaron Wainwright joins James Benjamin and No 8 James Sheekey who gets his first start.

Munster are relatively impregnable in Cork. Dragons, for their part, are awful on the road, a series of losses should hit a barely credible 28 this evening and they haven't won anywhere in Ireland since defeating a weakened Ulster this time three seasons ago.

Munster have won seven of the last eight against the Men of Gwent and, since losing 16-6 here in 2004, have notched up 11 wins on the trot.

Tonight will make it a dozen.

Verdict: Munster

Munster - S Zebo; D Sweetnam, C Farrell, R Scannell, A Wootton; JJ Hanrahan, D Williams; L O'Connor, R Marshall, S Archer; J Kleyn, B Holland; J O'Donoghue, C Cloete, R Copeland.

Reps: K O'Byrne, J Cronin, B Scott, D O'Shea, M Flanagan, J Hart, I Keatley, S Arnold.

Dragons - W Talbot-Davies; A Hewitt, A Warren, J Dixon, J Rosser, A O'Brien, C Davies; T Davies, G Ellis, L Fairbrother, J Davies, R Landman, A Wainwright, J Benjamin, J Sheekey.

Reps: L Belcher, L Garrett, B Harris, S Andrews, B Roach, S Pretorius, A Robson, P Howard.

Ref - M Adamson (SRU)

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