Backs to the wall, Munster have a free shot to take the sting out of Wasps

Munster will give their all but a victory looks beyond a team with five debutants

Champions Cup Pool B: Wasps v Munster, Coventry Building Society Arena, Sunday, 3.15pm – Live on BT Sport

Well then, no matter happens, and as is usually the case with Munster in Europe, if nothing else this should be interesting. Unique too, for Munster have never before, or surely ever will again, pitch up for a Champions Cup tie with such an unlikely amalgam of seasoned Test players and raw youngsters.

The nine Test players will have to guide the five debutants in the starting line-up and the other potential newcomers on the bench. At least the 19-year-old Young Munster fullback Patrick Campbell, a former Cork All-Ireland minor football champion, is among an otherwise all-international backline.

With ten frontrowers alone among the 34 who travelled to South Africa and thus ultimately ruled out of this game, up front is a different matter though. Dave Kilcoyne, Tadhg Beirne and Peter O’Mahony – no better man – must lead an altogether more callow pack.

Like Campbell, the 21-year-old UCC and academy hooker Scott Buckley will make his debut, as does the Bandon born and bred former Irish under-20s tighthead James French (23) alongside him after graduating from the academy last summer.


Beirne will be partnered by the latest Waterpark product, the 21-year-old Eoin O'Connor and the fifth debutant in the starting XV is the 19-year-old Shannon and academy number eight Daniel Okeke, who began his career with Thomond and looked a powerful ball-carrier in the Under-20 Six Nations earlier this year.

One welcome selection is John Hodnett, a fine prospect with a bit of that Munster dog in him. He has recovered from a short-term ankle injury to make his first start in 13 months, having missed the majority of last season with an Achilles injury, and it is his European debut.

All but Roman Salanoa are in line for their senior debuts off the bench, with little known summer recruit Declan Moore joined by another quartet from the academy in Mark Donnelly, Ethan Coughlan, Tony Butler and Jonathan Wren. But even Salanoa has only had seven outings as a replacement, the last of them in June as he’s also just back from injury.

And therein lies another rub.

Chris Farrell will be playing his first game since June after recovering from an abdomen injury, Conor Murray will be making his first start of the season for Munster while Kilcoyne will be playing his first game in seven weeks. Apart from Damian de Allende, another making his seasonal re-appearance for Munster, their international contingent are undercooked to varying degrees, in addition to finding cohesion as a team.

Wasps, it’s true, are missing 18 injured players themselves but they still have a much more experienced side. Tom West and Biyi Alo both return to the frontrow and Sebastian de Chaves comes into the secondrow in place of the injured Vaea Fifita.

Head coach Lee Blackett also promotes Sam Wolstenholme at scrumhalf and Michael Le Bourgeois returns at outside centre in making six changes from the side which lost 32-31 away to Worcester last week.

They came back well after trailing 25-14, albeit the week previously they also came up short with a big comeback in losing 35-33 at home to Gloucester after trailing 23-12 at the break.

These sides haven’t bumped into each other for over a decade, since Munster sealed their qualification with a hard-earned win in Thomond Park en route to their second European Cup and avenged an exciting one-point loss in the opening round at this stadium.

Having moved location permanently to the Coventry Building Society Arena just under seven years ago from their north London home amid much fanfare, the crowds have dwindled discernibly.

The pandemic hit the club hard financially, leading to redundancies, and amid an ongoing grudge from the Coventry football supporters, home games have become a harder sell, not least without the star signings of before such as Charles Piutau, Kurtley Beale, Willie le Roux and George Smith, to the likes of James Haskell, Christian Wade and Danny Cipriani.

Still, they were Premiership finalists last season and their former great Lawrence Dallaglio believes they are not far away.

While allowing for their storied history in this competition, not even Munster could have scripted this. It is exciting. It’s classic Munster. Backs against the wall. Stand up and fight. It’s something of a free hit. They’ve nothing to lose and with their South African travelling party due to be back in Ireland on Saturday, they will relish the challenge.

Hogging the spotlight as ever, true to form, Munster will give their all. But the patchwork nature of their team has to be remembered. They’ll do Munster proud, but emerging with anything tangible from this adventure truly would be something special.

WASPS: Marcus Watson; Zach Kibirige, Michael Le Bourgeois, Jimmy Gopperth, Josh Bassett; Jacob Umaga, Sam Wolstenholme; Tom West, Dan Frost, Bi Alo; Sebastian de Chaves, Elliott Stooke; Alfie Barbeary, Brad Shields (capt), Tom Willis.

Replacements: Gabriel Oghre, Robin Hislop, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Tim Cardall, Nizaam Carr, Thomas Young, Will Porter, Francois Hougaard,

MUNSTER: Patrick Campbell; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Keith Earls; Joey Carbery, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Scott Buckley, James French; Eoin O'Connor, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O'Mahony (capt), John Hodnett, Daniel Okeke.

Replacements: Declan Moore, Mark Donnelly, Roman Salanoa, John Forde, Conor Moloney, Ethan Coughlan, Tony Butler, Jonathan Wren.

Referee: Romain Poite (France).

Previous meetings – 1996-97: Munster 49 Wasps 22. 2003-04, s/f: Munster 32 Wasps 37. 2007-08: Wasps 24 Munster 23, Munster 19 Wasps 3.

Betting: 2-9 Wasps, 25-1 Draw, 10-1 Munster. Handicap odds (Munster + 10 pts) 10-11 Wasps, 19-1 Draw, 10-11 Munster.

Forecast: Wasps to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times