Peter O’Mahony has been named in a squad for the first time since he suffered a cruciate ligament injury at the Rugby World Cup last October – and the Munster captain admits it’s good to be back.
O’Mahony has been named on the bench, with director of rugby Rassie Erasmus making eight changes in total for the clash against Zebre at Thomond Park.
Ireland internationals Simon Zebo and Tommy O’Donnell have recovered from injury while lock Darren O’Shea and winger Alex Wotton have been handed their first competitive starts.
Front rowers Duncan Casey and Stephen Archer make their first starts of the season with Jaco Taute to make his Munster debut from the start after being named at inside centre.
Donnacha Ryan is also in line for his 150th Munster cap – he will line up alongside O’Shea after being forced to withdraw from last weekend’s match with Edinburgh due to illness.
And after watching on from the sidelines for so long, O’Mahony cannot to make a contribution on the pitch for Munster’s new regime under Erasmus.
“It was a long-term injury and I prepared myself for that but the last six to eight weeks were tough, just being on the edge and nearly there,” he said.
“Training on your own is tough because it’s a team sport. For the last few weeks, I’ve been lacing up the boots to go out and do a full session which was exciting.
“I am a big believer in what (Erasmus) is trying to do, a big believer in his game plan.
“He has a huge amount of knowledge and he is not the kind of guy who will throw it at you and say, ‘go and do it.’ We will sit down and go through it.
“They explain everything as to why we are doing it. I think our understanding is better as a squad of what we are trying to do and I think that makes it more enjoyable.”
The Munstermen have won their last five matches at Thomond Park in all tournaments since Leinster beat them there in the PRO12 on 27 December.
In contrast, Zebre have not been victorious away from home in the Guinness PRO12 since they visited Treviso on January 3.
But they held an in-form Cardiff Blues to account last weekend, picking up their second league point of the season in a 21-23 loss.
Munster Rugby: Zebo, Sweetnam, Earls, Taute, Wootton, Bleyendaal, Murray, Kilcoyne, Casey, Archer, Ryan, O’Shea, Holland, O’Donnell, Stander
Replacements: Scannell, Cronin, Ryan, O’Mahony, Oliver, Williams, Keatley, Bohane
Zebre Rugby: Padovani, Di Guilo, Bisegni, Castello, Venditti, Canna, Palazzani, Lovotti, D’Apice, Chistolini, Geldenhuys, Koegelenberg, Sarto, Meyer, Ruzza
Replacements: Festuccia, Postiglioni, Roan, Furno, Minnie, Engelbrecht, Boni, Greeff
Overall Guinness PRO12 head to head record:
Played 8, Munster won 8, Zebre won 0.
At Thomond Park, 5pm.
Referee: Dan Jones (WRU, 1st competition game)
Assistant Referees: Simon Rees (WRU), Dermot Blake (IRFU)
Citing Commissioner: Murray Whyte (IRFU)
Munster’s Irish internationals did the damage as they convincingly beat Zebre 49-5 in a seven-try showing to move top of the Guinness PRO12 table.
Conor Murray, CJ Stander and Simon Zebo, as well as Darren Sweetnam, all crossed the whitewash as Munster wrapped up the bonus point before the break and they refused to let up after the interval.
A penalty try and Stephen Archer’s effort made the score 42-0 and although Gabriele di Giulio finally got the visitors on the board with nine minutes remaining, the hosts had the final word with Stander grabbing his second score of the game.
The victory takes Munster’s Guinness PRO12 record against Zebre to nine wins from nine games and also brings their Thomond Park winning streak in all competitions to six matches.
It took just two minutes for the hosts to get off the mark as Sweetnam darted over and Tyler Bleyendaal banged over the first of Munster’s seven successful conversions.
Carlo Canna had the chance to narrow Zebre’s deficit with a ninth-minute scrum penalty but his kick drifted wide and that was the closest the Italians came to troubling the scorers in the first period.
Halfway through the first 40 minutes, scrum-half Murray dived over off the back of a line-out maul before his Ireland team-mate Stander charged down an attempted clearing kick in the Zebre 22 and gathered to dot down under the posts.
Munster’s fourth, bonus-point clinching, try was arguably their best of the match as Bleyendaal intercepted and found Sweetnam, whose offload released Murray to chip through for Zebo to kick and control for the score.
Try number five came ten minutes into the second half as a kick ahead from Sweetnam saw him tackled off the ball by Gideon Koegelenberg and the penalty try awarded.
Archer then charged over the whitewash following Ian Keatley’s initial break and pass but Zebre got on the scoreboard when di Giulio crossed in the corner.
But there was still time for flanker Stander to touch down for the second time in the match as he broke away from the Zebre defence and Keatley’s successful conversion took him over 1000 points for the province.
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 adults and €5 child, and be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie. For further information visit http://www.pro12rugby.com/final