THE surprise retirement announcement of Munster number eight, CJ Stander, has dominated the news in the lead-up to tonight’s game against Benetton.
While Stander will be on duty at the Aviva Stadium for Ireland this weekend, Munster’s leading, all-time try-scoring forward is bound to be the topic of conversation in the build-up to what is Munster’s last game before the Pro14 grand final against Leinster next Saturday.
While Stander will be available for the remainder of this campaign, the shock news is a major blow, though Munster’s emerging back-rows, like Cork’s Jack O’Sullivan and Alex Kendellen — and John Hodnett when he returns from injury — will be viewing Stander’s departure as an opportunity.
That’s something Gavin Coombes has done in the past 12 months. Coombes can expect to be part of the starting 15 against Leinster, and then in the Champions Cup quarter-final against French giants, Toulouse, the following weekend.
This ‘dead rubber’ against minnows Benetton is the last chance for emerging players to impress Johann van Graan this year. Last weekend’s win over the Scarlets was a similar affair. Apart from Joey Carbery’s brilliant display, the impressive cameos from Kendellen, Jack Crowley, and Thomas Ahern were talking points.
While fans will await the season-defining ties against Leinster and Toulouse, they will be just as interested to see the young guns. Benetton will make unwanted history unless they can muster up an unlikely victory in Thomond Park, having lost all 13 ties. A season of defeats awaits, especially against a Munster side eager ahead of the final at the RDS.
Van Graan will give Carbery and Niall Scannell more game-time but could be cautious with Mike Haley, Damien de Allende, Coombes, and Jean Kleyn.