Munster, semi-finalists in the Guinness PRO14 last year, face off against Conference A rivals Toyota Cheetahs on Saturday at Thomond Park.
What’s at stake? Munster are coached by South African Johann van Graan and were one of the few teams to beat the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein last season, however, the visitors will be eager to avoid a repeat of their heavy loss here in Round 2 in 2017.
Munster won all three games they played against South African opponents last season while the Cheetahs were defeated at Scarlets in the Guinness PRO14 Play-offs, but in the regular season their only loss in the last five rounds was at home to Munster on 13 April.
Cheetahs won just two of their six fixtures against Irish provinces last season, both at home, to Leinster in round 4 and Connacht in round 17.
The two sides have met twice before with Munster winning both encounters.
Team news (Munster) New signings Arno Botha, Mike Haley and Neil Cronin will make their Guinness PRO14 starting debuts, while Joey Carbery is set to make his debut in red if sprung off the bench.
Academy and Ireland 7s player Shane Daly is another making his debut as he joins Haley and Darren Sweetnam in the back three.
The pre-season centre combination of Rory Scannell and Dan Goggin remain unchanged for the tournament opener.
Neil Cronin, who last featured in the competition as a replacement in March 2015, partners up with JJ Hanrahan in the half backs.
In the front row returning international prop John Ryan makes his first appearance of the season as he scrums down next to Mike Sherry and Dave Kilcoyne.
Captain Billy Holland and Jean Kleyn continue their partnership in the second row with Dave O’Callaghan, Tommy O’Donnell and Botha forming the back row.
Team news (Toyota Cheetahs) Oupa Mohoje will be leading the Cheetahs this season and their team includes seven players making their bow in this competition.
They are Benhard Janse van Rensburg, Tian Schoeman, Luan de Bruin, JP du Preez, Walt Steenkamp, Aidon Davis and Ryno Eksteen.
The team will be travelling to Wales on Sunday for the second match where they will be facing Ospreys in Swansea on Saturday, 8 September at 18:30 (SA time) before they return to Bloemfontein.
Talking points “We are excited to start with Guinness PRO14 again. We have a huge task ahead of us with new players who joined the squad and we want to make South Africa and Guinness PRO14 proud,” said Coach Franco Smith, who put his duties as Springbok Attack Coach aside to focus fully on the Toyota Cheetahs.
“Tomorrow is the beginning of a new season. We are realistic. We and have to stick to the process and try to adapt as quick as possible to the required tempo and intensity.”
Key battle: JJ Hanrahan v Tian Schoeman
JJ Hanrhan gets the start at No.10 this season for Munster but knows he will have to make it count with Carbery breathing down his neck.
Meanwhile Cheetahs new scrum-half Schoeman joined from Bordeaux in the Top 14 and has been backed to make an immediate impact.
Key fact: The Munstermen have lost only once at home in any tournament since February 2017: 24-34 to Leinster on 26 December 2017.
Did you know? The only time since 2009 that Munster Rugby have begun a new Guinness PRO14 campaign with an opening weekend defeat was when they slipped up by a single point to Edinburgh in Limerick in 2014.
Munster: M Haley, D Sweetnam, D Goggin, R Scannell, S Daly, JJ Hanrahan, N Cronin, D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, J Ryan, J Kleyn, B Holland, D O’Callaghan, T O’Donnell, A Botha
Replacements: R Marshall, B Scott, S Archer, D O’Shea, G Coombes, J Hart, J Carbery, S Arnold
Toyota Cheetahs: M Jaer, R Maxwane, B J van Rensburg, N Lee, W Small-Smith, T Schoeman, S Venter, O Nche, J du Toit, L de Bruin, J Basson, JP du Preez, J Pokomela, O Mohoje, J Wiese
Replacements: J Dweba, C Marais, A Coetzee, W Steenkamp, A Davis, T Meyer, E Stapelberg, R Eksteen
TV: Thomond Park, Limerick, 5.15pm. Live on Premier Sports, EIR Sport and SuperSport
Referee: Dan Jones (WRU, 15th competition game) Assistant Referees: Craig Evans (WRU), Mark Patton (IRFU) Citing Commissioner: Peter Ferguson (IRFU) TMO: Simon McDowell (IRFU)
Munster maintained their magnificent opening day record in Guinness PRO14 with a six-try win against Toyota Cheetahs.
Scores from Rory Scannell, Dave Kilcoyne, JJ Hanrahan, Tommy O’Donnell and Darren Sweetnam ensured the province’s record was extended to just one defeat in nine Round One outings.
With their international stars set to soon filter into the XV, this five-point success was a warning to the rest of Conference A that Munster mean business.
Franco Smith’s Cheetahs began with brio in their bid to improve on a lacklustre record against Irish provinces in Guinness PRO14, yielding two wins from six fixtures.
Their pack extracted an early penalty but Tiaan Schoeman couldn’t quite produce from the tee, his long-range attempt drifting wide with only two minutes on the clock.
The loss of newly-named skipper Oupa Mohoje came as a crushing blow, the former Springbox seeming to roll his ankle collecting a high pass on the right-hand side.
Munster’s opening score a minute later was all Sweetnam’s doing, though, the winger leading a raking break with an inspired run and offload.
Centre Rory Scannell profited and ran 20 metres to put the hosts 5-0 ahead.
Sweetnam’s fingerprints were all over another promising Munster foray, his powerful run only foiled by the combined weight of Sibhale Maxwane and Will Small-Smith.
A second try came from a less predictable source, prop Dave Kilcoyne barrelling over with help from Jean Kleyn.
Arno Botha, who had made a rumbling line break five minutes earlier to no avail, was the architect after picking up from the base of the scrum and making more metres.
12-0 in arrears, the South Africans used the interval to redouble their resolve but found Munster’s new recruit Shane Daly in their way.
Daly wasted no time in endearing himself to Thomond Park on debut, scrambling across to deny Maxwane a certain try with a stunning recovery tackle and turnover.
Munster crossed the whitewash for the third time on 53 minutes, Neil Cronin carving out quick ball after Sam Arnold’s run and sending O’Donnell over with a pop pass.
The home crowd were on their feet again seconds later, the introduction of new signing Carbery drawing a standing ovation amid a rousing welcome for the ex-Leinster fly half.
Munster’s immaculately functioning lineout laid the platform for another incursion, Billy Holland crossing the line but losing control to see his try overturned by TMO.
The Cheetahs were pinned in their own territory and the fourth arrived on 66 minutes, the ball cycled out to JJ Hanrahan who stepped inside to convert from ten metres.
O’Donnell was finally sent into the right-hand corner after a fiendishly flat ball from Carbery was passed through hands and allowed the flanker to force his way over.
Reeling, the visitors made a basic handling error in the midfield and Sweetnam was on hand to punish – forging Munster even further ahead with a sixth.