Kelly set for Munster swansong as Connacht eye upset

TONIGHT’S Magners League match between Munster and Connacht at Musgrave Park (kick-off 7.30pm) will be tinged with emotion as a province bids farewell to one of its great servants.

John Kelly bows out at the apex of his career, and captains Munster in his 154th and final appearance for the province.

Kelly is entitled to take a bow in front of a sell-out Musgrave Park which will acclaim the 33-year-old for his farewell match. But he probably won’t with a game there to be won and valuable points at stake.

Connacht come hunting for their first win over Munster in 21 years. Hopes of a victory for the westerners cannot be high following a morale-sapping 39-0 defeat away to Newcastle on December 16.

Connacht know the need to start wining on the road as their hunt for a Heineken Cup placing for next season is paramount.

Michael Bradley makes three changes to the side clipped by the Falcons including David Gannon, who returns to the second row though concerns surround the fitness of Mel Deane and John Muldoon. It’s still a strong Connacht side, who will be looking to Ireland internationals Gavin Duffy, Johnny O’Connor for leadership. The duo can also view this as a final trial match for the 2008 Six Nations, and Duffy particularly will need to up his performance levels.

Munster coach Declan Kidney says Connacht have “more to play for this season” given Ulster’s travails and the tantalising possibility of that Heineken Cup place. And well may Connacht eye their chance of causing an upset. Twice this season Musgrave has seen its fortress veneer eroded with losses to Cardiff Blues and, most recently, to Leinster. If anything they have shown that the Cork venue is not a feared place anymore.

Kidney has opted to “freshen up” his squad as fringe players — particularly those who carried the can while the international contingent were at the Rugby World Cup — get their chance to stake claims for more first XV permanency. Ronan O’Gara’s understudy, Paul Warwick, faces his former side for the first time, Kieran Lewis is offered another opportunity to begin making inroads in midfield, while the exciting Cork Con tyro, Denis Hurley, will try to demonstrate that he can be the heir apparent to Shaun Payne.

“It’s an important game to us,” says Kidney. “If you ask the fellows who are given the chance to show themselves, they’ll tell you that it’s a big game for them. The bottom line really is you don’t want to be losing at home.”

The next few days will also see a changing of the guard: Kelly reaches the last stop in his Munster journey that included three Heineken Cup final appearances, but tomorrow a winger with gold in his boots touches down in Cork airport, hoping to contribute to the Munster cause as Kelly so selflessly did.

For Kidney this game will be followed by a trip to Ulster on January 4, a fixture some may view as an opportunity to “blood” Doug Howlett in northern hemisphere rugby. “I couldn’t tell you whether he, no more than anybody else, will be lining out in that one,” says Kidney but the top All Black try scorer of all time has reportedly been in training and is eager to play.

“I wouldn’t be expecting too much (of Doug) initially,” added Kidney. “It’s always difficult when you change hemispheres and try to fit into a different type of game.”

The ‘Howlett Experience’ for Munster fans may have to wait a few more weeks. Kidney is reluctant to look too far ahead anyway, even avoiding talk of the Heineken Cup clash to Clermont Auvergne on January 13. Connacht are in his sights, and maintaining the pressure on those teams above Munster in the Magners League table is his priority for now.

“Experience has told us not to think towards that (Heineken Cup). It’d be unprofessional anyway not concentrating on each game as it comes.

“Our Magners League is just as much priority to us as Heineken Cup, and on top of that too, you can relate one to the other: it’s usually teams at the top of the league that do well in the Heineken Cup. We don’t want to be slipping any further down the table as the last result did to us. Only for the last result we could be sitting on top right now.”

MUNSTER: D Hurley; J Kelly (capt), K Lewis, L Mafi, I Dowling, R O’Gara, P Stringer; F Pucciariello, F Sheahan, T Buckley, D O’Callaghan, D Ryan; D Leamy, N Ronan, A Foley.

Replacements: J Flannery, M Horan, M O’Driscoll, J Coughlan, G Hurley, R O’Gara, B Murphy.

CONNACHT: G Duffy; L Bibo, D Riordan, M Deane/A Wynne, O Treviranus; A Dunne, C O’Loughlin; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Morris; M Swift, D Gannon; M McCarthy, J O’Connor, C Rigney/J Muldoon (capt).

Replacements: J Fogarty, R Loughney, A Farley, R Ofisa, C McPhillips, P Durcan, A Wynne/D Yapp

Referee: C Stanley (IRFU).

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