A NEW rugby season, a new league, intriguing new opponents, returning fans, and a returning club legend.
These are just some of the sub-plots that face Munster as they kick off the inaugural United Rugby Championship with the visit of the Cell C Sharks to Thomond Park on Saturday evening.
We have come a long way from the first Celtic League campaign of 2001/2002.
Clubs have folded, some have merged, countries have been added, new clubs have been invited in and then kicked out again, and here we are in 2021, with the biggest and boldest version of this competition yet.
The is the inclusion of big South African franchises, the Sharks, the Stormers, the Bulls and the Lions can breathe life, interest and, almost more importantly, finances, into what is ultimately the bread and butter competition for Munster and the other three Irish provinces.
It might be some time before we see these four teams at full strength due to South Africa’s current commitments in the Rugby Championship, but playing the likes of the Sharks and Stormers in the next few weeks will certainly bring an element of curiosity and intrigue to proceedings.
In terms of a squad update, props Roman Salanoa and Liam O’Connor are two players who have experienced a lot of injury issues in recent years and they commence this season on the absent list due to knee and neck injuries, respectively.
Chris Farrell, Kevin O’Byrne and new signing Jason Jenkins are also unavailable, along with the Lions Series contingent of Conor Murray, Tadhg Beirne and Damian de Allende, but given that the Sharks will not be at full strength either this should not be too much of a concern to Johann van Graan.
The Durban-based side head into their opening URC ties shorn their seven current Springboks, with Ox Nché, Thomas du Toit, Jaden Hendrikse, Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi, Aphelele Fassi and World Cup-winning Springbok captain Siya Kolisi all on Rugby Championship duty with South Africa.
As a result, the Sharks bring a young, inexperienced squad to Europe for the club’s first sojourn into northern hemisphere club rugby.
Giant second row Gerbrandt Grobler, who made eleven appearances for Munster in the 2017/2018 season, as well as former Ulster pair Ruan Pienaar and Wiehahn Herbst, will offer some badly needed know-how.
From a Munster perspective the returning Simon Zebo will garner a lot of headlines in the coming weeks and months.
He's still the club’s record try-scorer on 60, although Keith Earls is now only one behind him on 59, so let’s keep an eye on that duel.
He is expected to bring a degree of X-Factor that has been absent from Munster’s attacking play in recent seasons.
The returning fans are certain to make plenty of noise when he is on the ball.
Munster would appear to have great strength in depth, although a few positions are probably worth keeping a particular eye on as the season progresses.
With Farrell and de Allende unavailable there are opportunities to impress in the centre and it will be interesting to see whether the opportunity is taken to experiment a little with the likes of promising out-half Jack Crowley getting a run at inside centre to see how he performs as a second distributor in what could be an exciting backline.
With three talented young out-halves in the form of Crowley, Ben Healy and Jake Flannery, van Graan will have to get creative in terms of giving them all adequate on-pitch time, as rotating them as back-ups to Joey Carbery will not help too much in terms of all their developments.
CJ Stander’s retirement should mean more opportunities for Munster’s emerging young back rowers too.
Gavin Coombes, after a simply ridiculous breakout year last year, will be the man main at No 8, but he should miss a few games on Ireland duty so others like Jack O’Sullivan and the exciting Ireland U20 captain Alex Kendellen will be looking to take any opportunities that come their way.
This duo will also be looking for game time in the seven shirt, competing against the likes of Chris Cloete, Peter O’Mahony, Jack O’Donoghue and the almost fit again John Hodnett.
Cork rugby fans will be keeping particular attention on how Kendellen and Hodnett fare this year.
The second row looks well stocked, but it is perhaps in the front row where Munster’s season will live or die, as it could potentially be Munster’s Achilles heel this year.
Again, the hope is that some of Munster’s young, emerging talent can make their presence felt in this area on Saturday and on the season as a whole.