After falling at the final hurdle a year ago, Munster will be keen to kick off their campaign on Friday at 7.35pm with a victory as they host Benetton Rugby at Irish Independent Park in Cork in a game that will be televised by TG4 and Eurosport Italia. Treviso, meanwhile, will be looking to build on a strong end to last season where they won three of their final five games.
What’s at stake? Munster enter the season looking to bounce back from that defeat to the Scarlets in last year’s final and will be all the more eager to impress in what will be Rassie Erasmus’ final months at the club, with the director of rugby set to return to his native South Africa. Meanwhile Treviso are searching for only their fourth win over Munster in 21 attempts in the Guinness PRO14.
Team news (Munster): After bidding farewell to Donnacha Ryan and Francis Saili at the end of last season, there are some new faces involved for Munster, including academy flanker Sean O’Connor and namesake Liam, an academy prop, who both make their first starts. Chris Farrell makes his competitive debut in the centres, with James Hart and Ciaran Parker set to do the same off the bench.
Team news (Benetton): Kieran Crowley has named a team featuring a pair of debutants from New Zealand, with Whetu Douglas slotting into the back row, while Marty Banks makes his long-awaited debut at fly-half. It’s an interesting backline, with fly-halves Tommaso Allan and Ian McKinley, also both starting, at inside centre and full-back respectively. Another player in an unfamiliar position is Edoardo Gori on the wing.
Talking points: It’s hard to look past Erasmus and how the team copes with the South African set to leave the province where he made such an impression last year. With assistant coaches Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery looking to pick up as much as possible from Erasmus and assistant Jacques Nienaber before they depart, this could be an indication of what to expect from Munster going forward. For Treviso, away wins have been something of a rarity in recent seasons so a hit-out in Cork might be the chance to put that right.
Key Battle: While there are a number of intriguing battles, we have to focus on the two fly-halves. Kiwi-born Tyler Bleyendaal enjoyed a breakthrough season last year and will be looking to kick on, while Marty Banks is thrust straight into a starting role after a successful stint with the Highlanders.
Key stat: Treviso midfield pairing Tommaso Allan and Tommaso Benvenuti are both Italian internationals but they first played together in France when they were on the books at Perpignan.
Did you know? Hooker Mike Sherry has been named on the bench for Munster and is set to make his first competitive appearance since May 2016. He has been struggling with a back injury that looked as though it might put an end to his career.
Munster: A Conway; D Sweetnam, C Farrell, J Taute, A Wootton; T Bleyendaal, D Williams; L O’Connor, R Marshall, S Archer; J Kleyn, B Holland; S O’Connor, T O’Donnell, J O’Donoghue.
Replacements: M Sherry, B Scott, C Parker, F Wycherley, R Copeland, J Hart, I Keatley, D Goggin.
Benetton Rugby: I McKinley; A Esposito, T Benvenuti, T Allan, E Gori; M Banks, T Tebaldi; F Zani, L Bigi, S Ferrari; D Budd, M Lazzaroni; F Minto, S Negri, W Douglas.
Replacements: E Makelara, C Traore, M Riccioni, F Ruzza, A Steyn, G Bronzini, A Sgarbi, A Buondonno.
TV: TG4/Eurosport Italia (KO 7.45pm BST)
Match officials – Referee: Ian Davies (WRU). Assistant Referee 1: Craig Evans (WRU). AR2: Gary Conway (IRFU). TMO: Neil Hennessy (WRU).
Guinness PRO14 Final 2018 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 for adults and €5 for children, and be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie
Munster produced a first-half attacking masterclass as they ran in five scores to effectively kill the game at the break and secure a hard-fought opening day Guinness PRO14 win against Benetton Rugby.
Scores from Jean Kleyn, Tyler Bleyendaal, Darren Sweetnam, Alex Wootton and Andrew Conway in the first half saw Munster punish the visitors, while Kleyn added a second after the break.
Munster, looking to bounce back from defeat to the Scarlets in last year’s final, scored an early try after just eight minutes as Kleyn went over from close range.
After a period of sustained pressure, Chris Farrell very nearly going over for the home side, Munster finally struck and took the lead.
Bleyendaal added the extras as Munster raced into a 7-0 lead after just nine minutes of the game.
And it got worse for the Italians just four minutes later as Bleyendaal scored his side’s second try. A Benetton turnover just over halfway saw Conway kick through, and after yet more pressure, Bleyendaal danced over; this time he missed his kick at goal though.
Benetton, looking for only their fourth win over Munster in 21 attempts, got themselves back into the game on 19 minutes as Marty Banks fired over a penalty after a spell of territory that saw the Italians have a five-metre scrum.
The tries kept on coming for Munster though and on 26 minutes it was Sweetnam to go over next for the home side, with lovely hands by Alex Wootton creating the score. Unfortunately, Bleyendaal missed his kick at goal on this occasion.
Just past the half-hour mark and Munster added try number four as Conway started a glorious move that was finished off by Wootton, with Bleyendaal missing his conversion.
Benetton were now all at sea and unable to cope with the constant Munster attacks, and it wasn’t long before Munster went over again for their fifth try of the evening as Conway scored after a wonderful offload from Sweetnam to leave the half-time score at 27-3 to the home side.
Shortly after the interval Munster crossed the whitewash again as Kleyn scored his second try of the game, with Bleyendaal adding the extras to make it 34-3.
If the first 40 minutes was all about attack for Munster, it was the opposite after the break as the Irish side were forced to dig deep against a much-improved Italian outfit.
There were plenty of positives for Benetton to take from the second half but finishing off their chances and their accuracy in the opposition 22 is certainly something the Italians will need to work on in the weeks ahead.
It was fitting Conway was handed the man of the match award late on after producing a wonderful first-half attacking display, and then backing it up with a defensive shift after the break.