Benetton Rugby will break new ground on Saturday as they become the first Italian team to feature in the Guinness PRO14 Final Series.
Their reward is a trip to Thomond Park to take on a Munster side that finished the season on a high.
Johann van Graan’s side won nine of their last ten Guinness PRO14 encounters and completed an unbeaten regular season at home by seeing off fellow Final Series qualifiers Connacht on the final day of the campaign.
The Limerick-based side are looking to reach a third final in five seasons but you have to go back to 2011 for their last title, something of which Van Graan, Peter O’Mahony and the rest of the Munster squad will be acutely aware.
What’s at stake?
Holders Leinster lie in wait for the victors of Saturday’s clash.
The prospect of a semi-final at the home of their old foes is certainly an enticing one for Munster, who will be hoping to build on their superb home form this season against the Italians.
For Benetton, a bonus-point win over Zebre clinched a spot in the post-season and a quarter-final in Limerick, with Kieran Crowley determined to show that the Leoni are ready to seize the opportunity and book a semi-final date with Leinster.
Keeping their season alive for a further week will not be easy against a Munster side who have had the edge in recent meetings, most notably a 37-28 win in Treviso last month.
Victory at the Stadio Monigo made it 22 in a row for Munster against Italian opposition – and you have to go back to 2013 for Benetton’s last win over the Irish province.
But with the attacking talents of the likes of Monty Ioane and Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara out wide, and Tommaso Allan pulling the strings, Benetton arrive in Ireland looking to upset the odds once again.
Team news (Munster):
Munster have made three changes to the side that defeated Connacht last weekend, with Rory Scannell, Keith Earls, and Conor Murray coming into the back line.
Key figures for Ireland in the recent Guinness Six Nations campaign, Earls and Murray start on the wing and at scrum-half respectively, with Scannell pairing up with Chris Farrell in the centres.
There is, however, no place for the talented fly-half Joey Carbery, who has once again been ruled out through injury.
In his absence, able deputy Tyler Bleyendaal will look to steer Van Graan’s men to a last four berth.
Team news (Benetton):
Guinness Players’ Player of the Season nominee Monty Ioane headlines a reinforced Benetton side for the daunting trip to Thomond Park.
The electric Australian, who has scored six tries so far this campaign, is part of an exciting back division that shows several changes from the team that secured a bonus-point win over Zebre last time out.
Ratuva Tavuyara and Marco Zanon both return, with Jayden Hayward continuing at 15.
The back row sees Sebastian Negri, Abraham Steyn and Toa Halafihi complete a starting lineup filled with both physicality and guile.
Munster head coach Johann van Graan said: “We got eight more league points than last season, which is a huge positive.
“Also, we have the best home record, 47 out of 50 points. Glasgow finished with the most points, but it comes down to three points over 21 rounds.
“I’d love to have a home semi-final, but recent results didn’t go our way. But we’ve improved from last year.”
Benetton head coach Kieran Crowley said: “I’m very proud of everything we have done off the pitch. The medical staff, the physios, the other coaches, and everyone who works behind the scenes to help the 15 on the pitch.
“We don’t want to stop here. We have nothing to lose because nobody expected us to get here.”
Key battle – Peter O’Mahony v Sebastian Negri
A ferocious presence both at the breakdown and in the tackle, Munster captain O’Mahony sets the tempo for his side’s work out of possession, while also playing a key role at lineout time.
But the 29-year-old is unlikely to have it all his own way on Saturday, with Italy flanker Negri a keen back-row competitor in his own right.
Winning the battle of the breakdown may hold the key to winning the war.
Key stat: No Italian side has ever been victorious at Thomond Park in any tournament.
Did you know? Munster Rugby, who are attempting to reach their fourth semi-final in the last five years, have lost just once in the Guinness PRO14 in 2019 – 6-10 at Scarlets in Round 17
Munster: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls, Tyler Bleyendaal, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony (Capt), Chris Cloete, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, Jeremy Loughman, John Ryan, Billy Holland, Arno Botha, Alby Mathewson, JJ Hanrahan, Dan Goggin
Benetton: Jayden Hayward; Ratuva Tavuyara, Marco Zanon, Luca Morisi, Monty Ioane, Tommaso Allan (Capt), Dewaldt Duvenage, Nicola Quaglio, Luca Bigi, Marco Riccioni, Marco Lazzaroni, Federico Ruzza, Sebastian Negri, Abraham Steyn, Toa Halafihi.
Replacements: Hame Faiva, Derrick Appiah, Tiziano Pasquali, Irné Herbst, Dean Budd, Tito Tebaldi, Antonio Rizzi, Alberto Sgarbi
TV: Live on eir Sport, Premier Sports & DAZN
At Thomond Park, Limerick, 3.00pm.
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU)
Assistant Referees: Ben Whitehouse, Dan Jones (both WRU) TMO: Ian Davies (WRU)
Citing Commissioner: Edie Walsh (IRFU)
The Guinness PRO14 Final is one of the most entertaining games in the rugby calendar and takes place in Glasgow’s Celtic Park on May 25. Tickets start at just £25 for adults, £1 for kids. Visit www.pro14rugby.org/finaltickets
JJ Hanrahan’s monster penalty broke Benetton hearts as Munster snatched victory at Thomond Park 15-13 to set up a Guinness PRO14 semi-final against Leinster.
In their first ever knock-out game in this competition, Benetton led heading into the final five minutes, but were made to pay by Hanrahan, who split the posts from the halfway line at the death.
Antonio Rizzi and Jayden Hayward each had a final chance for Benetton, who scored the only try through Ratuva Tavuyara, but they pulled their drop goal attempts to the right and Munster survived.
Having made history to reach the Final Series for the first time, Benetton looked far from overawed in the opening exchanges, playing a slightly more conservative game than we are used to seeing from them as they kicked for territory regularly.
Munster eventually settled into their game and started to take a stranglehold but found it hard to turn territory into points.
Toa Halafihi was penalised on the line for not releasing CJ Stander, but after Munster had gone to the corner, he redeemed himself by earning the turnover from a driving maul.
Chris Farrell was next to come close, brought down just short of the line, while Tadhg Beirne knocked on over it when Conor Murray tried to put him in.
Instead it was through the boot of Tyler Bleyendaal that they finally took the lead, the fly-half slotting after Luca Bigi had taken Murray out at a ruck.
Benetton responded immediately, Tommaso Allan knocking over a penalty after a ruck infringement to bring the Italian side level, despite just 20 percent possession to that point.
Munster continued to press, but could not find a way through the Benetton defence, Marco Riccioni particularly eye-catching with one turnover penalty and a huge scrum to earn another.
The one issue for Benetton was how little ball they had enjoyed in attack, but when they finally did get some, they made it count.
Allan set up territory with a beautiful kick into the 22, reminiscent of Ronan O’Gara at Thomond Park.
Munster cleared their lines initially but after a lineout and some good work by the forwards down the left, they shifted the ball back to the right. The passing was slick and Tavuyara produced a trademark finish, touching down with one hand while being tackled. Allan added the touchline conversion to make it 10-3 at the break.
Johann van Graan’s side had dominated the half to little success, but showed more realism at the start of the second half, Bleyendaal knocking over a second penalty of the afternoon four minutes in.
A lot of Benetton’s success this season has been a result of their two flyers out wide, Monty Ioane and Tavuyara.
The Italians could have pulled away as both sliced through the Munster defensive line. First it was Ioane, finding Jayden Hayward, but Braam Steyn could not collect with 15 metres of open space in front of him.
Tavuyara then wriggled out of a couple of tackles and sprinted through. He lined up the final defender but replacement Hame Faiva again could not collect with the try-line at his mercy.
Munster had a chance to respond, deciding to turn down a kick at goal and instead go to the corner. That tactic failed as Federico Ruzza claimed a brilliant steal ahead of Peter O’Mahony and Benetton survived.
Instead it was Allan who stretched the lead with a penalty on the hour, after replacement JJ Hanrahan had strayed offside at a lineout.
With that Benetton led 13-6, and had 20 minutes to hold out against their hosts.
Munster hit straight back, Hanrahan knocking over a penalty to cut the deficit to four once again and put the pressure back on Benetton.
And he added another two minutes later to make it a one-point game with quarter of an hour to go.
Benetton had been rocked, but responded to set up a platform with a monster maul. They got to within inches of the line, but the Munster defence held with the game on the line.
The Italians kept coming and got up to the Munster line, but John Ryan got the all-important turnover.
CJ Stander then earned a penalty from a ruck, Benetton were brought back ten metres for kicking the ball away, and Hanrahan did the rest.
As a result Munster travel to Dublin to take on Leinster in the semi-final, taking on their provincial rivals at that stage for the second year running.