Going west is never easy, admits McGahan

THERE was a time not so very long ago when post-Christmas games between the sides and played west of the Shannon Connacht and Munster were decided by a single penalty goal.

In 2003 at Dubarry Park, Athlone, in conditions that defied description, Ronan O’Gara somehow drilled a close range penalty kick through the gale force wind and lashing rain to give Munster the It was the only score of a game that everybody believed could never be repeated again. Twelve months later, however, it was just as bad when the sides lined up again, this time at the Galway Sportsground. Once more, Munster scraped through by three points to nil, Paul Burke the marksman on this occasion.

Thankfully, the elements have relented appreciably over the past few years. In 2005, rugby league star Gary Connolly celebrated his debut in the Munster jersey with a couple of tries in a 44-19 victory, six of Connacht’s points coming from replacement Paul Warwick who will be in the opposing line-up on this occasion.

In ‘06, Munster prevailed by 14-8 and even when the game was moved away from the festive period, Munster again won in Galway last March by 16-5, although even then a late converted try put a flattering appearance on the scoreboard.

Now all the indications are that Munster’s supremacy will be maintained at the Sportsground tomorrow when the sides clash in front of the Setanta cameras. They travel west leading the Magners League by six points and with an 18-point advantage over Connacht, who prop up the table after a season that has, with one notable exception, been profoundly disappointing.

In October, they demonstrated just how dangerous they can be on home soil when they shocked Leinster by 19-18 despite playing for much of the game with 14 men. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to reproduce similar never-say-die attitude and commitment on a regular basis. However, the recent European Challenge Cup double over Rovigo and the fact it is the Heineken Cup champions who provide the opposition may well inspire them to another heroic performance, a point not lost on Munster coach Tony McGahan.

“There is no difference in the scale of difficulty when you play against any of the other Irish sides,” he said. “They’re all local derbies and playing Connacht away is every bit as tough as playing Ulster at Ravenhill or Leinster in Dublin. This season they’ve beaten Glasgow and Leinster here and come into the game on foot of a good Challenge Cup run, so we’re under no illusions about the scale of the task we face on Sunday.”

Acknowledging that fact, McGahan has included the core of his first choice XV, although props Marcus Horan and John Hayes, second-rows Donncha O’Callaghan and Paul O’Connell and half-backs Tomas O’Leary and Ronan O’Gara are not asked to make the trip, not even as replacements. The team instead is captained by Mick O’Driscoll who makes his 130th competitive appearance in the red jersey.

His most recent appearance in charge was in the now famous match against the All Blacks and he has three more of the pack that started that night, Federico Pucciariello, Donnacha Ryan and Niall Ronan, at his side. On the other hand, six of the backs were in action against the tourists, with the injured Rua Tipoki making way for the inclusion of Keith Earls at full-back.

John Muldoon returns from injury to captain Connacht having been out of action since October. Liam Bibo has recovered from a hamstring injury to start on the left wing while Niva Ta’auso will make his first start at outside centre. Up front, Sean Cronin, starts at hooker while Colm Rigney returns at number eight.

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